Jack | Theology | University teaching & religious ministry.

Jack shares his journey to pursuing a PhD, tracing back to the influences that shaped his educational path. Reflecting on his decision to pursue ministry training and how his PhD journey bolstered this choice, he offers insights into his current role as a vicar and the intricate process of selection and ordination. Drawing from his experiences, Jack vividly recounts the highs and lows of his PhD journey and articulates his motivations behind embarking on this academic pursuit with sincerity and clarity.

Explore Jack’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Jack’s PhD
A brief biography
The reasons behind his PhD
Jack’s PhD experience
Finishing the PhD
Jack’s current role
How his PhD has helped in his current role

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Jack’s PhD

I came to Oxford from a, what you might think of as quite a non-Oxford background. I came from a school which didn't send people to Oxford or, or was at all used to that idea. And I was, sort of sickeningly captivated by academic life, in rather a sweet sort of way. I mean, I can patronise myself about it, but, I was a sort of, very dedicated student who was very, very interested in what he was doing.

And, and I suppose I saw postgraduate work chiefly as, an opportunity to further that. So it was really something that I was doing that I was interested in. And there was the opportunity to do more of it. I didn't take the decision to do a doctorate as, as it were, a career decision though at that point I was still thinking that, perhaps I'd like to go into the academic life.

And it was during, during my time doing research, there wasn't anything about, about the research that turned me off academic life per se. But I think, I was always clear that, whatever I did was going to be something in the church, and that if I ended up working in a church or an institution that was academically related, then that would be a sort of a bonus as it were.

And in that respect, I suppose doing the doctorate gave me, more options in with hindsight, it gave me more options as to the sort of places where I might work or where I might minister in, in the Church of England specifically. but I didn't, I didn't decide to do it for that reason because I hadn't decided what I was gonna do with my life at that point.

A brief biography

And will you begin by telling me what your, just briefly what your undergraduate degree was in, what you went on to do afterwards and where you're at now, just to sort of encapsulate the whole thing.

Okay. I did an undergraduate degree in Theology in Oxford. And when I started that degree, I had no intention of going into the church. However, during my time as an undergraduate, I started to think more seriously about that possibility. what I was sure about was that I was very interested in theology.

So I decided, that what I really wanted to do at that stage was to do more theology. And I, stayed on in Oxford to do a DPhil, which took me another three years. And during those three years, I, gradually made up my mind that, the church was where I wanted to be. And so, I think during the second of my three years of doing a DPhil, I began seriously the process of putting myself forward for ordination and, what's called selection for ordination in the Church of England.

You'd go offer a conference a bit like being examined for the civil service or something, I suppose. And, by the end of my, by the beginning of my third year of my DPhil, I knew that I had been accepted for training. And that immediately after finishing my doctorate, I would go to theological college or seminary as it's called, to do practical side of my training.

That took another two years. And then when I was ordained, I worked first of all in a parish in Essex. because originally I was from the Diocese of Chelmsford, which covers the part of East London I was from, and also the county of Essex. I came back to Oxford, after, two and a half years and I spent two years there. I then spent a year as assistant chaplain I was appointed chaplain where I was for four years. And I'm now the vicar of a church in the centre of Oxford.

The reasons behind his PhD

So your undergraduate degree was in theology as well?

Yeah, that's right.

And at the point you go into your DPhil in theology

Yeah.

It's with a very open mind about what's going to happen next.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think at that point, if you'd asked me, oh, see, I was very young when I started my doctorate because I was still in the old system where you could, I was in the last year, in fact, in Oxford, Oxford, the old system where you could go straight from your bachelor's degree into your doctorate. So the old system of doing three, you know, what we call three and three, a three year undergraduate degree and three more years.

And you had a, a PhD. So I, I finished my DPhil when I was 25, which used to be, of course, reasonably normal in Oxford. and now is very, very rare. and looking back on that time, I realised that, although intellectually I was, I was bright, I was, I wasn't terribly mature. and I don't think, I don't think I had enough information really to make what you might call broadly informed decisions, about anything other than following a particular direction.

You know, the only thing I was sure about was that the direction I had to be following was something to do with the church. and if when I'd started my doctorate when I was 22, 21 or 22, you'd said to me, if you could do anything you want, what would it be?

I think I probably would just have said, I'd like to stay in Oxford for the rest of my life and be a Don. Because I was very starry-eyed about, about the whole of academia, and that sort of thing. And I, and I, I did, you know, quite a lot of teaching when I was a DPhil student and enjoyed that and, and thought that, this is something I would like to do at some point in the future. But that's the, one of the, obvious aspects of, of ministering in the church is that there is a lot of teaching involved in, in any context.

So that was, you know, quite, quite useful.

Jack’s PhD experience

What was your doctoral experience like?

I realise now that it was rather isolated. I, I was very close to my supervisor who was someone who didn't have very many supervisees. and we are still very good friends. But I look back on it as an academic, as an intellectual experience. I think that perhaps it was rather limited and that, he, steered me in particular directions, and didn't perhaps encourage me to explore a broad, as broad a canvas as I should have.

So that when I finished my doctorate, there were still large parts of, of theology that I knew absolutely nothing about. which I now realise that that might, might have informed what I did quite strongly. But that was partly my own immaturity.

See, I was very, I knew nothing about the postgraduate process or about doing a doctorate, and there was very little in Oxford in those days, very little that was structured to, to help you. There was none of what we now have, where we have lots of events for graduate students, lots of emphasis on teaching them various skills that you need to undertake research. We have compulsory seminars that we didn't have any of that.

You know, there was a small community of postgraduates working roughly in my area, and we used to meet for a seminar and we all knew each other. But it wasn't very serious. We, we, we sat around pooling our ignorance really more than anything else.

Finishing the PhD

Did you ever access any careers type services?

No, I don't think so. I applied for one junior research fellowship during the time, which was actually a junior research fellowship based at my own college, which was a pastoral, sort of like a Junior Dean, like, like a sort of welfare Junior Welfare Dean, JRF post combined, which new college, they still, they still have that system.

And I applied for that just because it was sort of, it seemed obvious thing to do. 'Cause they'd often had people from their own college. I mean, I'm not at all surprised I didn't get it. and looking back on it, I think I would've done it disastrously 'cause I was so young. But, otherwise I didn't apply for anything or really pursue anything at all except the Church of England, which is its own, rather idiosyncratic process, which involves making contact with somebody whose job it is to, to discern vocations and meeting with them several times, talking about what sort of experiences one has had and what one experiences one needs to have, perhaps, especially if one's young, inexperienced.

And, and eventually, as I say, being, being sent off to a, a selection conference, which takes place residentially in your together with a group of people for three days and you do various exercises and interviews and things like that.

And then you get, a recommendation for training or not. At any part of that process, did you doubt that that was the way you wanted to go? I don't think I doubted it was the way I wanted to go at that point. I doubted it afterwards lots of times. I never doubted that it was what I had to do, but I, some, I often doubted whether or not it was what I wanted to do.

I think, that when I started the process, I was very excited by it all and the idea of the church excited me and in terms of my own, you know, to, to be frightfully theological for a moment in terms of my own vocation and spiritual life, I think that enthusiasm was part of what was steering me towards ordination.

Firing me up for it, if you like. So that, the most important thing for me was a sense that this was absolutely the right thing for me to be doing. Now with hindsight, I realised I didn't, it wasn't the right thing to be doing over against lots of other things. I didn't weigh up lots of other options. This just felt like, a clear and obvious path that I was definitely meant to be, be following. And I obviously, I still, still firmly believe that now that that was the case and it is the case.

But, that childlike excitement about it is something one, one grows out of. But, but one realizes the importance of it in, in actually, you know, galvanising oneself and, and moving forward on what can be a, a difficult process for people because of the uncertainty of, of what's going to happen.

You know, looking back at it, I didn't think in those terms at all. I didn't think what will happen if I don't get selected? What will I do? I mean, I must have given it some thought. I think I must have, I suppose I thought about school teaching or something like that, but I have very, very little recollection of spending very much time thinking about alternatives. Just somehow or other I was sure that this was meant to be.

And, and it was, and was that, you know, that might sound sort of fine because that's the way it happened because there are lots of people in that position for whom it doesn't work out. And I think if I'd known more about the process, more about and more about the church at the time, I probably would've been more worried about it and more concerned with other options and, and covering bases and things like that.

You said that when you started the doctorate, your primary concern or interest was in staying in Oxford, possibly as a Don, and so at some point during your doctoral experience, the church loomed larger than it did at the beginning, but at the same time you didn't need a doctorate in order to pursue the career you’re in.

No, sure. I mean, when I started the doctorate, I hadn't definitely decided on the career. I had definitely decided that, theology was the right thing for me. And maybe the ordained ministry was, I saw the two very much as going together.

But at the initial stage, I was clearer about the interest in academic theology than I was, that it was definitely right for me to go into the ordained ministry. and I suppose my, my sort of fascination with Oxford and being an adult and that sort of thing never entirely went away because in my time there was still the case that a lot of, you know, most Dons in theology were ordained. So I thought, well, if I want to be a theology Don, then being ordained is actually gonna be a help, not a hindrance because it would open up, you know, job possibilities and things like that.

Can we talk a bit now about the process for selection?

Yeah.

And maybe we could make some comparisons between what it was like for you when you went through it and how it might be now?

Mm-Hmm. When I went through, there was a particular system in the Church of England is supposed to be that you are selected for training, not for ordination. That's to say when you are selected, there's no guarantee that you will be ordained, but there's a guarantee that the church thinks you're worth training. Now, the reality is that because it costs the Church of England a lot of money to train you, once they decide you're gonna train, you have to do something pretty drastic not to be ordained, you know, you have commit adultery or something like that.

The, the period that I went through was interesting because there had, over the previous few years, been quite a reaction against people coming straight from college. There'd been a, a general sense in the C of E that “What do these young whipper snappers know? They better go and learn something about life”.

So, they started turning down lots of people in there, early twenties, telling them to come back a few years later. And of course what happened is that very few of them came back. They all went off and, and got nice jobs and thought, well, “Why the heck do I want to go into the church?” And the church started realising that if it didn't have any young ordinances, that it wasn't getting enough work out of people before it had to start paying their pensions. And it couldn't afford to do that. So I was really at the beginning of the time when they'd started saying, no, we are not actually obsessed with sending you off to out Mongolia.

There'll be plenty of chance for you to get lots of experience while you're training. But nevertheless, the fact that I was 25, not 22 or 24, I was in fact, helped if I'd come straight from undergraduate, of course I don't think I would've been selected straight away. And it was undoubtedly a matter of playing down the academic stuff to a certain extent and playing up practical and pastoral stuff that I did.

And very simple example was there used to be still is in Oxford a, a student run organization called JACARI. JACARI stands for Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance. which sounds terribly dramatic, but what it actually existed for was, was for students to teach English to British kids whose home language wasn't English. So, particularly JACARI works with the, Muslim community in East Oxford.

And I used to go out to East Oxford once a week on the bus and teach, a, a little boy's name was Shabaz who was struggling with the schoolwork. Now, as it happened, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Shabaz’s English. He just was struggled with schoolwork, you know, but it was a, it was a nice thing to do and I enjoyed it. And we had fun, and being rather cynical, I have to say that that sort of thing really wowed the, the selectors in the Church of England.

You know, they thought, “Goodness me, is this terribly, terribly bright prize winning theologian who, who instead of spending all his time at the library, he goes off and teaches a Pakistani boy English. How, how wonderful must he be?” You know? And actually because my background, you know, I grew up in, in both western eastern London, where most of my best friends were British Asians. And it was, that experience for me was perfectly normal.

But because I was coming from Oxford and from doctoral work, that seemed very striking because their idea of, of a researcher an academic didn't fit with, with that more sort of, how should we say it, sort of grounded or, or, or socially involved type of person. I don't know about your background. I, I lived until I was 12 in the London Borough of Ealing. Now in the 1970s in the London Borough of Ealing, it was a very interesting time. London borough of Ealing includes, the area called Southall. And when I was at school in the seventies, Ealing borough Council had what they thought was the frightfully enlightened policy of having a representative number of British Asians in all their schools. Well, this meant that, that, at eight o'clock every morning, a fleet of coaches went into Southall and bused all these kids out around the borough. And you didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that, that we, we called them “the children who came on the coach”.

You didn't have to be terribly bright to notice that they were all Asian. No, it didn't bother us. We all, you know, we all got on perfectly well. But, looking back on it, it was a strange, strange thing to be part of. when I was 12, we moved over to the other side of London and, a place called Wanstead, which is quite near another quite large, Asian community, more of a Sikh community in Ilford for some reason, I don't know, the demographic. And also a large Jewish community in Gants Hill.

So what you might call multiculturalism has always been being a big part of my life. And one of the things that's always struck me about Oxford, as being strange is how terribly un-multicultural it's, and in particular, how terribly white it is. And whenever friends of mine would come and visit, or my parents, you know, after a while, a couple of hours of walking around or something, they would, people would often say, it's very striking how white everybody is. Because when you've grown up in London and, and you're used to what you might call a racial mix, it's a shock.

Now in that respect, the selection process, the Church of England represents, although it claimed to represent reality, it was actually representing the white establishment because that's what the Church of England was like. And that's why something as simple as helping out with the JACARI seemed to them to be so spectacular. Whereas to me it just seemed like a very basic thing to be doing, to give a little bit of your time to, you know, to help somebody else.

And I actually quite enjoyed doing it. So there was that sort of hoop jumping element of selection that as an academic, well I was quite cynical about. but it wasn't unnatural. And I wasn't doing, I wasn't doing JACARI so that I could get ordained. I was doing JACARI 'cause I wanted to do JACARI.

If you could, give me a little bit of a chronology for finishing the DPhil and then your career progression to the current.  

Okay. So I finished my, my DPhiI and I went straight to theological college. In fact, I handed my DPhiI in at the university offices as the very last thing I did before I drove out of Oxford in my car, not to return as it were. and I started theological course three days later in Cambridge.

Whilst I was in Cambridge, I did a lot of different sorts of practical work, partly practical experience in a parish in Cambridge. Also, I worked for three months in on an estate, in inner city Salford worked in a school there in a church, and that was a very formative experience. And then a few months later, I spent three months working at a church in the middle of Manhattan in New York City. And that was also a very formative thing. So it was the practical stuff I did after my doctorate that was most directly formative of me when I was starting my parish ministry.

And then, after being ordained in I worked for two and a half years in, a church in Essex and learned a tremendous amount and grew up, I think at that point, or at least began to grow up. It was a, an ordinary sort of residential commuter town.

Not terribly well healed, not, not, not terribly needy either a good sort of mix of a place. I came back to Oxford largely because I wanted to get married and, and, my wife was, planning to do a doctorate. So I wanted to work somewhere. We really wanted to work in either Oxford or Cambridge, 'cause that's where she wanted to be. and, after two years working in a church institution in, in Oxford, I then went on to work at a college in a, an assistant, chaplaincy position in, in, an academic community.

And then moved on from there to another similar institution, where I was for four years before I became vicar of this parish, which is, one of many parishes in, in the centre of Oxford.

Jack’s current role

Can you tell me now a bit more about what life is like now? What's, what is your, what is your day Like?

Right. Well, I have two jobs in that. I'm the vicar of a parish and I also teach theology in the university, but, I spend much more time being a parish priest than I do teaching. and that is divided up into, four obvious, areas, the most basic of which is a prayer of worship.

So I'm in church three times a day, on every working day, as a routine in the morning and in the evening and for a Eucharist each day. And, obviously parish work involves a certain amount of, of admin and that sort of thing. That's another area. It involves, an important sort of teaching and study ministry, particularly for preaching.

So, I spend a certain amount of time on that and I spend a lot of time on what might generally call pastoral contact, which either means people coming to see me or me visiting hospitals, hospices, housebound, and lots of student contact as well. When you're the vicar of, of what you might call an ordinary residential parish, you tend to walk, wander around and knock on people's doors when your congregation is made up of a university or something like that.

In a city, in the centre of a city where very few people live, it's rather a different dynamic, but you are roughly speaking, doing the same thing. So instead of knocking on people's doors, I meet them for coffee or something like that. But it's, it, it's still, a lot of one-to-one work, a lot of listening, and, a lot of, encouraging and nurturing people who are new to, new to my particular church, but usually new to, to Christianity generally, or at least new to it again, having, a lot, a lot of people have a certain church background, which then for some reason stops and they, and they take it up again, at student level or later.

There's a certain amount of what people, thinkers spend all their time doing, which is things like baptisms, weddings or funerals.

Actually being a city centre parish, we have much less of that because we don't have what you would call an ordinary residential community. So when I was in Essex, I did much more of that. I did a funeral a week, I suppose, and here, I probably do three or few, three or four funerals a year. So the day is, is divided into all those different activities and the, the worship side of it is what punctuates it.

So it doesn't always begin and end in church because I often have to work in the evening at meetings or something like that. But it's the boundary, if you like the air, the space in which it works is bounded by, by liturgy and worship and, and, and prayer, which is essential.

What things do you enjoy most and least about your job?  

What I enjoy most about my job is, getting to know people, particularly young people, and, encouraging people who are new to the Christian faith. and talking to people who have lots of questions and issues, and who are genuinely challenged by, their issues they face in their own lives, issue issues they face in the world around them, and what they perceive to be the teaching of the Christian Church.

Sometimes they have a wrong perception of it, but, but it's something which engages them. The other thing, the other thing I particularly enjoy funnily enough is, funerals of members of my own congregation. I have a lot of people, who are very longstanding and very holy Christians, and ministering to them when they're dying is a tremendous privilege and ministering to their families and sitting, something as simple as sitting by the bedside and praying with people who are dying.

But also the actual funeral itself and the celebration of, the Christian faith and, and a belief in resurrection is something that's very powerful. So that's two things I've asked for. What do I enjoy most? What I enjoy least is being, asked by drug addicts for money, which is a particular issue for clergy who work in the city centre.

Not because I have difficulty not giving money to people who, who shouldn't have cash, but just because the blight of addiction is so very, very obvious in the centre of a city like Oxford. And it's a tragedy with which one is constantly confronted and in the face of which one feels rather powerless. Not that there aren't things going on and things with which the churches are involved and, and all that sort of thing, but when it confronts you as a, as a one-to-one thing with an individual, it's a, it's an unfailingly depressing experience.

How his PhD has helped in his current role

It encouraged me to think in, very sharp, intellectually aggressive rather, rather immature sort of ways of thinking. You know what, as a tutor, I would describe as very male ways of thinking. And, you know, looking back on it now, I realise that what it was, a very famous theologian, in fact once said this to me when I was describing why I wasn't really interested in the work I'd done as a doctoral student anymore, he said, was because it was primarily about winning arguments.

And that was right. That really was what my doctorate was doing. I was dealing with a lot of quite well-known people in the field and just sort of, you know, dismissing them with a wave of my 24-year-old hand. And whilst I don't, I don't necessarily think I was wrong intellectually, I still think probably the, the things I argued were correct. I'm not sure how constructive it was as a piece of work.

And one of the reasons I've never really been interested in trying to get it published or, or anything like that, 'cause I look at it now and think, you know, oh dear this, not that I'm embarrassed, not that I'm embarrassed that I wrote this, but this is very much something which is written to pass a doctoral examination, not something which makes a significant contribution to theological scholarship. I know the two are supposed to be the same thing, but let's face it, they often aren't. It did, it carried on from my undergraduate work in, in that it, the skills I had as an undergraduate developed.

So being able to deal with, dents and complex text in particular, and being able to, elucidate difficult ideas. And it, it did encourage me to make connections across a variety of fields.

My doctoral work was, in a sense was a bit impressionistic in that I drew on a lot of different periods of Christian theology and a lot of different types. So I, you know, I spent a lot of time discussing the interpretation of the Bible and I spent an awful lot of time discussing the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

And those things don't really very obviously connect, but when you think about them a lot, then you make connections. And, and that was, interesting. But I think the more time I spent with, classic text in particular, the more it encouraged me to be suspicious of almost any, secondary material whatsoever.

And actually that's in, in terms of my own, subsequent interest in theology and academia, that's had quite a negative effect on me. 'cause it means I'm, I'm not at all interested in, in writing theology, generally speaking. 'cause I just think, well, all the other theology I read is rubbish. Why, why is anything I'm going to write going to be any, any better? And that, I think that goes back directly to that sort of, you know, what I call the sort of immature, aggressive style of winning arguments.

I don't think there's anything particular about doctoral work in Oxford that makes that inevitable. I think it's just that that was my experience and it relates to the fact that, that I, I was young when I did my doctorate, young in years and young in breadth.

It is interesting that you did a research degree and, and that some extent has put you off research

Yeah, I mean, funnily enough, the, you know, what little genuine research I have done since coming back to Oxford has been in a completely different area and has been much more like what people think of when they think of research. I, it's been spent trawling through archives and reading letters of Victorian clergy and reconstructing, you know, meetings of obscure church organisations that took place in Oxford in the 1860s and that sort of thing.

And, and that I found, I still find, very engaging. It, it's more like it appeals to my, it appeals to part of me that likes reading detective novels. It's, it's a sort of reconstructive thing, but it's something very different from the theology in which I'm really trained, which is about, formulating, dealing with and formulating very complex philosophical and theological ideas and try to express them clearly and usefully.

So in that respect, the doctorate has helped me much more as a teacher, than it has as a researcher, which is ironic, perhaps because a lot of people are, you know, are very good researchers who aren't perhaps terribly good teachers.

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