Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” scored as a box office hit of Tsunami proportions on its opening weekend. As Barnabas and I dropped our 3-D glasses into the recycle bin on our way out of the theater I was taken back to another time and place.
The year was 1964 and the place was a garden just outside one of the oldest buildings of Christ Church College in Oxford. At that time the house was the residence of the late Dr. F. L (Frank Leslie) Cross, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity of the University of Oxford, known by thousands around the world as editor of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. He was even better known by the hundreds of scholars who attended the famous Patristic Conferences he hosted back in the day.
I was there along with more than two hundred and fifty Anglican Monks and Nuns from around the world for the first Oxford Conference of Anglican Religious to hear papers, talk, pray and sort out what was going on in the Church in the wake of Vatican II.
Canon Cross had been prevailed upon to use his considerable organizing skills by Fr. Donald Allchin, the Librarian of Pusey House and other monastic leaders in the area to plan the week long conference of religious, bishops, scholars and ecumenical leaders.
All good English conferences begin with tea in the garden and the weather was fine that day. I had never seen so many religious habits of varying cuts, colors and styles. We had gathered in a private area, behind a wall in front of Dr. Cross’s home. It was one of the oldest buildings on the campus, dating back to the time before the Reformation when Christ Church was still the Abbey of St. Frideswide, an Augustinian monastery.
Dr. Cross was a kind and thoughtful host who enjoyed meeting his guests. At one point he said to me, “Keep your eye out and you might see him.” “Who?” I replied, thinking the Archbishop of Canterbury might be paying us a visit. “The White Rabbit,” he said, with a twinkle in his scholarly eyes. “This used to be where Lewis Carroll lived. He wrote Alice in Wonderland on this very spot, this was his garden for a time. His real name was Charles Dodgson and he was an Anglican Deacon and life long professor here at Christ Church. He lived in the priory house, where I do.”
Sadly, I didn’t see the white rabbit. There was a moment when I heard a voice somewhere in the crowd say, “Excuse me, please, I’m late, I’m late for a very important….” But it was only a brother looking at his watch hurrying to the chapel to get things ready for Evensong.
In 1964 the church and the Religious Life stood on the brink of change as did the world and for the first time ever most of the religious orders had representatives in the same place to walk the path together into that unknown future. Perhaps it was quite appropriate that we should have started with tea in the garden of Alice in Wonderland because we were all about to step through the looking glass into times that have become, as Alice said, “Curiouser and curiouser.”
The Rev Andrew Rank is a Canon of the Cathedral