The Rabbi and the bean bags


For my first degree, I read Theology at what was then called the University of Kent at Canterbury (UKC or Cantaur).  It is now simply ‘the University of Kent’, as it has a campus at Medway, shared with the Universities of Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church, too.  Formed in 1965, the University took the original dual title because it did not want to take the already used names of the University of Kent, in Canada, or the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand.  I did the BA (Hons) degree in two years, gaining direct entry to part two, due to having already been studying Theology, philosophy, and wider ecclesiastical studies for the past 4 years: 1 year in spiritual formation as a novice with the Franciscans at Chilworth, Guildford, then 3 years at the Franciscan Study Centre (FSC), the University’s next door neighbour college.

LGBT Health Summit - UKC Sept 2012 - 86

We were a noviciate of 11 in 1979, the largest since the 1960s, and never repeated since.  Some of the new novices already had degrees in various subjects; we also had a registered chiropodist, a professional artist, a tax inspector (!), an Army sergeant and me, a very newly State Registered Nurse.  One of the novices, Br Chris Dyczek (now PhD), had a degree in philosophy from UKC before joining.

Four years later, when we were students at the FSC and our noviciate group numbers had dwindled from 11 to about 7, 4 of us were ‘going up’ to University, in our Franciscan habits, to register on our first day: Brs George Smulski, Michael O’Kane and (now Dr) Seamus Mullholand and me.  As we walked out of the FSC, one of the priests, our amazing liturgist (sadly now dead) Fr Peter Hooper OFM (below: back row, far right), exclaimed: “there go the élite of the Province!”  Little did any of us know what the future would hold for us all or the massively dwindling English Province of the Order of Friars Minor today.  In total, we were about 30 students at the time.

FSC summer 1981
Franciscan Study Centre staff and students, summer 1981. (I’m 2nd in, 4th row on the right, next to the very bright ginger (now Dr) Bro Seamus Mullholand & behind Dom Tom Regan, OSB, from a few streets away from where I grew up in Cardiff.

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Chilworth, our noviciate, was sold off a few years ago to the Benedictines, and as I write this blog (20 May 2017 – the feast of the Franciscan St Bernadino of Sienna), the now-renamed Franciscan International Study Centre is preparing to says its final Mass and vacate the premises after 41 years history due to unsustainably low level of new vocations.  Out of the 5 of us with degrees from Kent, 3 of us now have doctorates.  That’s not bad for academia – not bad for Kent!

I used to love hearing the outrageous stories of St Bernadine of Sienna (8 Sept. 1380 – 20 May 1444).  He was a fiery preacher who would be up in the pulpit, with the heaving throng of a sweaty peasant congregation below him.  He would tell them that their sins were so bad, even if he saw them burning in hell, he wouldn’t even piss on them to put the flames out!  Unkind of him really, but it used to make me laugh at his use of such grapphic language.

All of the courses I chose at Uni were run by one of three amazing and inspirational teachers: Professor Hamish Swanston (a former Catholic priest, the first Catholic priest to head up a Theology department in the UK since the reformation), the steadfast Dr John Court (New Testament Greek expert) and Rabbi – later, Rabbi Professor at Aberystwyth University – Dan Cohn-Sherbok.  Fifty percent of the courses I took at Kent were with the Rabbi (Judaism; Theology, Morality and Law; Hebrew (minor); and my dissertation on the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber – “and the confirmation of ‘otherness’”).

Hamish sported a big bushy moustache and always wore fancy bow ties.  He ran this amazing course called “The formulation of Christine Doctrine” (FCD).  In these current days of religious extremism around the world I often think back to that course.  The main and abiding memory I have from FCD was that orthodoxy (literally ‘straight beliefs’ – i.e. the official beliefs of a religion – are formed by one bully-boy group ending up being stronger than the opposition, and beats its way to the top – that’s hegemony for you!  The ‘losers’ are then declared the heterodox (i.e. the holders of ‘other’ / not ‘straight’ beliefs), aka the heretics!

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Visiting the University of Kent, 2012, speaking at the National LGBT Health Summit

My sweetest memory of Dr Court was how steadfast, methodical and precise he was, not just in teaching us the etymological minutiae of Koiné (New Testament) Greek, but in the very way he used to dress, carry his briefcase and walk – or plod – in slow, determined steps across campus.  I often laugh to myself these days, as I must be older now than he was when he taught me, and when I teach during a hot day in summer term (Trinity, in the good ol’ days), I wear shorts, run across campus, and I think to myself “I’m Dr Court”!

Lizzie Sutton c 1980
My grandmother, Lizzie Sutton, probably round about 1984 aged 94

Just a few more memories before I tell you about ‘the Rabbi and the bean bags’.  Our exams (three hours each paper, including 6 hours of Greek) all happened over the May bank holiday weekend 1985.  Bank holiday Monday was a study day for me, to get me ready for the next day’s exam held in the large gymnasium.  I remember going to Darwin College bar for a couple of pints, then back to my room in halls, to study some more, when I was pleasantly distracted by the film Death in Venice, on the little black and white TV my grandmother had given me!

After the film ended I still had some hours of cramming left to do before I could turn in for the night!  (I still tend to study well late at night, but I’m an absolute drip to get up in the morning!)  Then when it came to results, a few weeks later, the lists of degree classifications would be pinned up in the entrance hall of the Gulbenkian Theatre on campus – first class honours to the left, then moving down the grades to the right.  They were due out on the Tuesday, so dozens of us sat on the grass outside the theatre waiting to see what we had been awarded.  There was a rumour that Theology was going to award 4 firsts, especially as it was the University’s 25th anniversary year.  My marks were up there somewhere, and although I wanted a first, I could only hope for it; in reality my marks were more predictive of an upper second.

Pope JPII at Canterbury
Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the UK and Canterbury cathedral 1982.        I was ‘this’ close!

The results didn’t come on the Tuesday.  We sat outside all day Wednesday, too: nothing.  Same for Thursday.  So by Friday, one of my friends and I bought a couple of bottles Champagne, went down to Canterbury cathedral, and lay on the cathedral lawns in the sun and got sloshed!  When we got back up the hill to campus, my next door neighbour in halls said, with great excitement and devilment, “your results have been posted!”  I shouted “Don’t tell me!” and I ran as fast as I could from Darwin College to the Gulbenkian.  Just as I got to the lawn outside, a friend of a friend was sitting on the grass and she shouted “Your results are out!” just as I simultaneously yelled back …

“D-o-n’t  t-e-l-l  m-e-eeee!” 

Two-One” came the scream.  My heart was deflated.  Although that’s a fab classification and enabled me to go on to achieve so many other professional and academic qualifications since, I was just lusting after a first!  Who says size doesn’t matter!

University of Kent at Canterbury - BA(Hons)
Cui servire regnare est‘ – the University’s motto: “To serve is to reign”

Canterbury Cathedral

The graduation ceremony was in Canterbury Cathedral.  Ex-Prime Minister Edward (Ted) Heath was awarded a Doctorate honoris causa in the morning ceremony, and (the now, Sir) Bob Geldorf was awarded an honorary Masters at our ceremony at 3.

Being such a Royalist as I am, I loved the instruction in the order of ceremony stating that …

“Ladies wear their caps throughout; Gentlemen don after The Queen”.

Once the National Anthem ended, hundreds of mortar boards went on tous ensemble.

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So strange to think that 26 years to the very hour of graduating with Theology, in Canterbury cathedral, I was undergoing examination in viva voce for my doctorate in sexual health at Greenwich!  From God to sex in 26 years!

BA Hons Graduation - 19 July 1985

Anyway, the Rabbi.

UJC at UKC - 83-84
One of the very few Catholics in the UJS

Each of the lecturers had their own office, and there were about 8 of us going to the Rabbi’s office for our very first seminar with him.  His room was very stark but impressive.  There were loads of books on the shelves, many in Hebrew, of course, two Master’s hoods hanging on the back of his door (Cambridge, UK, and I think Hebrew Union College, USA – where he was from).  There was his large desk, one desk chair, then a load of bean bags scattered all around the floor.  We nervously giggled at the thought of this, but we all squatted down on the floor and sat on the bean bags.

Dan sat up on his desk, legs crossed, stroking his beard in an erudite manner. “I bet you’re all wondering why you’re sitting on bean bags, on the floor, aren’t you?!”  “Well, that’s my ploy so that when you’re old and have grandchildren of your own running around you (!), you can say to them  …

“I learned Theology at the feet of my Rabbi”.

UKC - CoA - arty


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