Saturday, March 3, 2012

In praise of the Open House

One of the features of evangelical Christianity in Manchester during the early 1960’s was what was called “the Open House.” These were run by Anglican curates, or committed members of the laity, who opened their homes to young people after the Sunday evening service.

Open houses usually began with general socializing and the eating of snacks. But then, after about half an hour, a free for all discussion developed. Although they were moderated the topics and arguments were left entirely to those present. Thus the range of these discussions was remarkably wide.

Looking back I realize that open house were the religious equivalent of events organized by the Workers Education Association (WEA) on which they were probably modelled. The WEA was a remarkable organization set up by Oxbridge students, graduates, and professors in 1905 to improve the lot of workers by providing education in the broadest sense of the word. For North Americans I should explain that "Oxbridge" refers to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Workers Education Association
Therefore, the WEA included courses on things like art and music appreciation alongside ones more directly related to work issues. In this respect it was very unlike the modern university which is rushing headlong down the path of education for employment rather than Newman’s ideal of education for life. This is why George Orwell and a host of other prominent people worked for it at one time or another including the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze who taught workers courses on Buddhism.

What open houses did was allow young adults to explore a wide range of topics within an open Christian framework. This allowed people studying difficult topics at grammar schools, where the level of education was equivalent to a first year university course in Canada of the USA, or university to voice doubts about Christianity and think through critical issues.

When I first began to attend one run by Peter Downing, of Cheadle Parish Church, the topic of discussion, which went on for several weeks, was Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago Pasternak (1957). This was because it was the set text for that year’s British “A Level,” the exam that admitted people to university. I had never heard about the book before and found it fascinating

  What was impressive about these discussions was the flexibility of the people involved and their willingness to consider anything. For example, in discussing Pasternak’s work no one raised the type of question about sexual morality which are typical of North American Christian debates about this kind of novel. Instead, they concentrated on the literary value of the text, political issues and the meaning of life.

Perhaps the high level of discussion is not surprising since most of the people running them were Oxbridge graduates who were transporting the seminar from the ivy tower to the local parish. It has always seemed to me that the involvement of well-educated clergy and laity from the equivalent of Oxbridge is almost entirely missing in North American Christianity. Perhaps it helps explain the anti-intellectualism that pervades so many churches and Christian groups.

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