God in the Life Of the Revd Canon Professor Graham Ward

WHEN Graham Ward speaks at the Imagining Faith clergy conference in March 2014 he is bound to keep his audience entertained. He tells Jo Duckles his journey from his working class, background in Salford to becoming Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford University.

I met Graham in his study in the grandiose buildings of Christ Church College in Oxford. He admits that he considers living there a privilege. “It takes some getting used to. Oxford architecturally sets out to impress and ends up intimidating. I tell students to think it’s an MGM studio set and say ‘don’t for one moment think life is normally like this,’” says Graham, 57. The college, which is also home to the Oxford Diocese’s cathedral, is a far cry from the area of Salford where Graham lived from the age of 14.

He was dropped off at his grandmother’s house there with his three brothers after his father had disappeared. This was shortly before his mother died from Huntingdon’s Chorea – a genetic condition that also took the lives of two of his brothers. Graham speaks proudly of his grandmother, who was living on a state pension but cheerfully took in and brought up all four boys.

“Without her I wouldn’t be a theologian and probably wouldn’t have been educated beyond the age of 16,” he says, mentioning how many kids he knew who were capable but just didn’t have the self belief, or support to reach their full potential. “For me the support came from my grandmother. She never went to university. She won a scholarship but left school and was determined this wouldn’t happen to someone else,” says Graham. But when he was eight she showed him the University of Salford and told him he might go there some day if he worked hard.

When he tried to leave school at 16 there were very few job openings in Manchester or Salford. So he went back to school and won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he read English and French with ambitions to become a novelist or script writer. Meanwhile, as he was growing up his grandmother was a nominal Anglican and there was always a Bible in the house. In the Sixth form some members of a charismatic house church visited Graham’s school and inspired him to join them.

“…theology is full of mystery to explore.”

“The only reason I got dissatisfied with that movement was that I wanted to question and wasn’t really allowed to,” he says. “I don’t regret the grounding I got from them and it was in the house church that I first got a sense that I wanted to serve the Lord and that was quite central to my life.

“I am 100 per cent behind Alpha courses. People need to learn the basics from somewhere, but you need the space to grow and to give your congregation or fellowship the right to go beyond. People need to be given the space to realise theology is full of mystery to explore. What holds people back from that exploration is fear of getting it wrong. We are always going to get it wrong because we are dealing with things none of us fully understand.”

He describes English literature and Cambridge University as an escape from the world he had lived in. After graduating he did lots of writing but nothing major was published, so he began teaching English and drama to pay the bills and went back to square one in terms of deciding what to do with his life. The Anglican Church pointed the way forward: “I was converted by Evensong when it wasn’t even sung.”

Graham got through the selection process to become a priest and went to study at Westcott House. His grandmother and his life in Salford still remained determinative.

“My grandmother was one of the formative influences for the type of theology I do because I never want theology to be just a set of ideas, it has to relate back to real lives. The mantra I say to myself is: ‘tell it how it is, not how it ought to be’,” he says. Despite encouragements to go into academia, after studying theology back in Cambridge, Graham was determined to become a parish priest.

As a curate St Mary’s, Redcliffe, in Bristol, Graham would carry out bereavement and baptism visits. He remembers having to fill in forms asking why a couple wanted a child baptised. “One turned around to me and said the child was born in the parish and so they had a right to have them baptised there. I wasn’t arguing. There was faith there okay, but they couldn’t articulate it.”

“I was converted by Evensong when it wasn’t even sung.”

It was Barry Rogerson, the then Bishop of Bristol, who after a long interview told Graham he was going to release him for a position in the academic world. “He discerned something in me and released me into a world I wouldn’t have had the confidence to enter,” says Graham. “I now know that I had an academic vocation, but I didn’t realise I was clever until I was in my 40s.”

He became the Chaplain Tutor at Exeter College and Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge, before becoming a Professor at Manchester. On 21 September 2012 he was installed as a Canon of Christ Church in Oxford as he took up his role as Regius Professor of Theology. He has written extensively on subjects including theology and political thought, postmodernism and the role of theology in the increasingly secular age.

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