Choice of college

by Cole Matson

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my Oxford application process, particularly in regards to my choice of Oxford college. When you apply, you apply to a particular college, not to the University itself. I was overwhelmed by my choices. In addition to the dozen or so colleges that offered Philosophy and Theology, the course for which I was applying, there are several Permanent Private Halls (PPHs), which are religious institutions each based in a particular Christian tradition. After looking at each college and hall’s website, I decided to apply to St Stephen’s House, which is the Anglo-Catholic Hall. I chose St Stephen’s because when I attended a week-long seminar at the Kilns last July, I was introduced to the Oxford Movement, which created a renaissance of Catholic practice in the Anglican Church. I wanted to learn more about Anglo-Catholicism, and enjoyed the several services of that kind I attended while in the U.K. I have been increasingly drawn over the past couple of years – ever since attending graduate school for a time at a Jesuit college – to actions of reverence in worship, such as the sign of the cross and genuflecting. As a clad-in-the-plaid, bagpipe-tuned, baptized-under-the-cross-of-St-Andrew Presbyterian boy, I’m sure Calvin must be rolling in his grave. However, I think that those Protestant churches that place almost sole focus on reading Scripture and very little on the nature of the Sacraments are missing something very important about the Christian life. Don’t get me wrong, reading Scripture is vital, and I don’t mean to diminish its importance. However, there is something miraculous about the nature of the Sacraments, in which the Supernatural is made visible to us through the natural elements of bread and wine, oil and water. As much as I love the Church in which I was raised, I’ve come to realize I don’t believe in T.U.L.I.P, sola Scriptura, or the theological desirability of a bare sanctuary. I’m even re-thinking consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation.

O.K., back to colleges. I chose St Stephen’s because it seemed to best fit my changing theological beliefs (which are tending toward Catholicism, but aren’t all the way to Rome yet), my liturgical comfort level, and my academic interest in the Oxford Movement, out of which the House sprang. Also, St Stephen’s is located in the former home of the Society of St John the Evangelist (a.k.a. the Cowley Fathers), which is where C.S. Lewis made his confession every week. (How many American Evangelical Lewis fans know that Lewis went to confession?) Finally, I wanted to be part of an academic community that studied Christianity as believers.

However, I asked the advice of a friend of a friend, who is a staff member at an Oxford college. He recommended I not attend a Permanent Private Hall, as I would not get the typical undergraduate Oxford experience, especially at a small Hall like St Stephen’s which focuses primarily on training candidates for ordination (which I am not seeking). Instead, he recommended I apply to Keble College, which also came out of the Oxford Movement. He also recommended I add Harris Manchester, the college for mature students (i.e. students over 21), as my second choice.

I therefore applied to Keble. Shortly thereafter, Oxford e-mailed me to let me know that I could add a PPH (but not a college) as my second choice. I immediately added St Stephen’s. I received a reply e-mail from Oxford informing me that, while adding a PPH should not affect my chances at gaining a place at Oxford, it could take me out of the running for consideration by another Oxford college should neither my first-choice college nor the PPH offer me a place. I read this statement as saying that while my chances probably wouldn’t be affected, there was a chance they could  be, so in the interest of maximizing my chances at my greater goal – a place at Oxford – I dropped St Stephen’s from my application. I thought Oxford was a longshot anyway.

Keble was oversubscribed for my course (i.e. they had quite a lot of applicants), so they pooled my application to Harris Manchester, which is the college that offered me an interview. The interview consisted of a 1-hour philosophy test (critical thinking, not knowledge-based) and a 1/2-hour phone interview (since I couldn’t afford to fly to England for the interview days). Unlike a typical American college interview, this interview was not primarily about my background and interest in the University and the course (although they did spend a couple minutes on that). Oxford interviews are a test of your on-your-feet reasoning ability. 20 minutes before the start of the interview, the Harris Manchester Admissions Tutor e-mailed me my interview passage: the story of Christ stilling the storm, with the version from each of the three Synoptic Gospels side-by-side. The first half of the interview was with the Theology tutor, Dr Eric Eve, who grilled me on the differences in language between the three Evangelists. The second half of the interview was with Dr Sophie Allen, a Philosophy tutor. We discussed how I could know whether I was really sitting on a chair, and other questions of epistemology.

At the end of the interview, Dr Eve asked me two standard questions. Since I had already received my first undergraduate degree, I was applying for Senior Status, which meant I would skip the first year of the three-year course, as well as Preliminary Examinations, and go straight to the second year and Final Honours Course. Dr Eve asked if, should the College judge it prudent, I would be willing to take the full three-year course. I said yes. He also asked if they were to offer me a place to study the single subject of Theology (instead of both Philosophy and Theology), I would accept. I again said yes. Of course!

A few days after Christmas, I started hearing online that other applicants had started receiving their decisions. I had been visiting family and friends out-of-state for two weeks, so I called my roommate and asked if any letters from England had come for me. Sure enough, one had. As he read my acceptance letter – for a place reading Theology at Harris Manchester with Senior Status – I leaped into the air, literally jumping for joy. The odds were roughly 1 in 3 that I would get a place, so I had already started mentally preparing myself for a rejection. I was ecstatic.

Of course, a week or so later, my anxiety hit. What if I didn’t like Harris Manchester? After all, I had never been there. It also didn’t have the tradition I was seeking, being heavily influenced by the Unitarians. I was concerned that I would be learning Theology with a Unitarian bent, and that I wouldn’t feel at home in my college. Numerous students online reassured me that everyone comes to love their college, and I was looking forward to being in the smallest college (only 150 students total), albeit the poorest. Apparently HMC also had a reputation for serving the best food in Hall. I also liked the fact that HMC had Formal Hall twice a week, in which students are required to wear gowns. (The pomp and circumstance of Oxford academic dress and tradition was one of the draws for me.) But what if I hated it?

I got so anxious that last week I almost e-mailed the head of St Stephen’s House to see if I could transfer, what’s called “migrating” at Oxford. Migration is almost never allowed, and is generally reserved for students whose colleges have decided not to offer their course any longer, or students who have become handicapped and whose current college is not accessible, or for similar reasons. Migration is not approved for the sole reason that a student thinks a different college would be a better fit.

Thankfully, though, my family, friends, and other students talked me out of it. I realized that there were aspects of “typical undergraduate Oxford” that I did want to experience, and if I feel the need to be a part of an academic Anglo-Catholic community, there are several around, like Pusey House. Plus, I will be living in an academic Christian community at the Kilns. Being part of a College in a different tradition will help ensure I don’t develop tunnel vision in my study of Theology. Most importantly, though, Harris Manchester has been good to me. I enjoyed talking with Dr Eve, who has already helped me with a list of basic readings in New Testament Greek and general theology to get me started before I come up. I’m looking forward to studying under him. And Harris Manchester has a reputation as one of the friendliest colleges at Oxford, another definite advantage to me.

As I thought about it, I realized I had made the decisions on my application that I did based on three criteria:

1) My own areas of interest

2) Advice from a dependable source

3) Prudent focus on my larger goal

All in all, I think those criteria are quite reliable ones. And then you have Providence – trusting where the movement of God places me. Trusting in Providence has placed me in pretty good stead in the past, and since Providence has guided me to Harris Manchester, I’m quite excited to discover what the Lord has waiting for me there.