20 September 2022

Would the Rhodes Scholars
of 20 years ago challenge
the Rhodes Statue in Oxford?

The statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street façade of the Rhodes Building in Oriel College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Twenty years ago, immediately after leaving the staff of The Irish Times, I was invited to co-chair one of the workshops at the Halki International Seminar organised by the Athens-based think-tank Eliamep on the island of Halki off the coast of Rhodes.

The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy is an independent, non-governmental, non-profit think-tank, established in 1988.

The participants in the Halki programme in September 2002 included academics, journalists, politicians and policy makers, and we were hosted in a charming small hotel on the small island 10 km off the west coast of Rhodes.

During a free afternoon in the programme, I volunteered to take a small, select but mixed international group to Rhodes for a walking tour of the old town, to visit the surviving mosques and synagogue, to meet some business owners and shopkeepers of Turkish descent.

It was an exercise in ‘political ecumenism’ and a celebration of cultural diversity. At the time I felt I knew Rhodes well, having spent time there both working as a journalist and on family holidays.

For the rest of the seminar on Halki, the participants in that afternoon ‘field trip’ joked about ourselves as the ‘Rhodes Scholars’ among Eliamep’s students and panellists.

Walking around Oxford this month, I wondered, 20 years to the date, whether any of us would be happy referring to ourselves today as ‘Rhodes Scholars.’

For some years now, the statue of Cecil Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street in Oxford has been the subject of a number of protests, with calls for its removal. It has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism.

Oriel College has placed a small notice below his statue on the Rhodes Building, explaining that his statue is controversial and that the college is addressing this.

The Rhodes Building in Oriel College, Oxford, was funded by a legacy from Cecil Rhodes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) was a student at Oriel College intermittently between 1873 and 1881. When he died, he left most of his estate to establish the Rhodes Trust to fund scholarships for the Rhodes Scholars – students from Germany, the US, and the then British colonies.

He left £100,000 to Oriel College, of which £40,000 was designated for building a new building to replace houses along the High Street side of the college. The New Building, as it was initially known, was built in 1909-1911. Its design incorporated a set of statues commissioned from Henry Alfred Pegram, which included one of Cecil Rhodes.

However, Rhodes’s activities made him controversial as a benefactor. He arrived in southern Africa in 1871 at the age of 17 and was based there for the rest of his life. He quickly made himself a fortune through diamond mining; and he went on to establish himself politically, entering the Cape Parliament in 1881 and becoming Prime Minster of the Cape Colony in 1890.

The conduct of these activities and their impact on black Africans have attracted much criticism, both at the time and since.

The Rhodes Building forms the north range of Saint Mary’s (or ‘the Third’) Quadrangle at Oriel College. It was built to house undergraduates and Fellows of the college. It was built in 1909-1911 to the designs of Basil Champneys (1842-1935) in a bold Jacobethan style.

The Rhodes Building fills the whole stretch of the High between Magpie Lane and Oriel Street, and seven houses had to be demolished to make room for it.

The new building was not universally regarded as an enhancement to the street. In his memoirs in 1927, WE Sherwood wrote that Oriel had ‘broken out into the High, … destroying a most picturesque group of old houses in so doing, and, to put it gently, hardly compensating us for their removal.’

James Morris wrote in Oxford (1965): ‘If you are very old indeed, you are probably still fuming about the façade built in the High Street by Oriel College in 1909, which most of us scarcely notice nowadays, but used to be thought an absolute outrage.’

In all, there are seven life-size statues including Rhodes on the building, all sculpted in Portland stone by Henry Alfred Pegram. King Edward VII and King George V were chosen because one had died and the other had come to the throne in the year the building was being erected. The other four are former heads of the college: Cardinal William Allen (1532-1594), Walter Hart or Lyhert (Provost, 1435-1446), John Hales (Provost, 1446-1449) and Henry Sampson (Provost, 1449-1476).

The Rhodes Building remains largely unaltered, except for modifications to the south-east wing in 1981, and today it provides both student and office accommodation.

The campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes was taken up again by ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in June 2020, in conjunction with Black Lives Matter (BLM), following the death of George Floyd in the US.

The Governing Body of Oriel College voted on 17 June 2020 to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding both the Rhodes statue and a plaque on King Edward Street and to appoint the Master of St Cross College, Carole Souter, as the Chair for the Commission. In May 2021 that commission recommended the removal of the statue.

Meanwhile, a notice below Pegram’s statue of Rhodes declares:

‘This building was constructed by Oriel College in 1910-11 with money left in the will of Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), a former student of the college. The college commissioned a series of statues to front the building which includes Rhodes at the top.

‘Rhodes, a committed British colonialist, obtained his fortune through the exploitation of minerals, lands, and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since.

‘In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice.’

Oriel College explains its position on the statue of Cecil Rhodes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Saint John’s College, on Saint Giles’, Oxford, was founded in 1555 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today (20 September) the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers John Coleridge Patteson, first Bishop of Melanesia, and his Companions, Martyrs, 1871, with a lesser festival.

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This week I am reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in Oxford, which I visited earlier this month.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a church, chapel or place of worship in Oxford;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s College, Oxford, facing the east end (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John Coleridge Patteson (1827-1871), was born in London and was still a scholar at Eton when he came under the influence of George Augustus Selwyn, and later studied at Balliol College, Oxford. At the age of 28, Patteson left Britain in 1855 to begin his life’s work among the islanders of the South Pacific, becoming their first bishop.

Patteson was supported by SPG (now USPG). He trained local people in the hope that some would be ordained and so to equip them to share the Gospel in a way that was within their own culture. This bore fruit and Christianity spread rapidly. ‘Thief ships’ or ‘blackbirders’, essentially European slave-traders, also worked in Melanesia at this time, and carried off islanders to work in British and other colonies.

When Patteson landed alone on the island of Nukapu in the hope of showing that not all white men were deceivers, he was killed, probably in revenge for the capture of five young men by ‘blackbirders.’ His fellow-workers were also attacked in their boat, and two of them later died of tetanus.

John Coleridge Patteson and his companions gave their lives for the Gospel on this day in the year 1871.

Luke 8: 19-21 (NRSVA):

19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ 21 But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s College, Oxford, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint John’s College, Oxford:

For my reflections and devotions this week, I am reflecting on a church, chapel, or place of worship in Oxford, which I visited earlier this month.

Saint John’s College on Saint Giles’, Oxford, was founded as a men’s college in 1555 by Sir Thomas White to provide a source of educated Roman Catholic clergy to support the Counter-Reformation under Queen Mary.

Saint John’s is the wealthiest college in Oxford, with a financial endowment of £600 million, largely due to 19th century suburban development of land in the city of Oxford. The college has 390 undergraduates, 250 postgraduates and over 100 academic staff.

The Chapel was originally consecrated in 1530 as the chapel of Saint Bernard’s College, the Cistercian house of study in Oxford, and was dedicated to of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It was rededicated to Saint John the Baptist in 1557.

Sir Thomas White, William Laud and William Juxon are buried in the chapel. All three were presidents of the college, and Laud and Juxon were both Archbishops of Canterbury.

The chapel as it is seen today is largely a result of reordering by Edward Blore in 1843, with later alterations by Sir Edward Maufe in the 1930s. The chequerboard floor is said to date back to the Restoration period, but most other features are 19th century: the altar rails installed by Archbishop William Laud were moved to the parish church in Northmoor, west of Oxford, and the remains of the 17th-century screen are in Painswick House, Gloucestershire.

The wooden reredos behind the altar was made by Charles Kempe in 1892. Kempe also designed the east window, with figures including Sir Thomas White and Henry Chichele, the founder of Saint Bernard’s College.

At the reordering, the majority of the monuments were placed in the small Baylie Chapel to the north of the altar. These include a monument to William Paddy, the physician to James I, surrounded by the snakes of Asclepius; a black urn containing the heart of the antiquary Richard Rawlinson; and a marble relief of the baptism of Christ that commemorates William Holmes, a benefactor of the college.

William Laud endowed the college richly during and after his presidency, and the fine pre-Reformation ecclesiastical vestments that he gave are displayed every term. Laud’s friendship with Orlando Gibbons led to the composition of ‘This is the record of John’ for the choir of Saint John’s, and this setting of a text from Saint John’s Gospel is sung regularly in Chapel. It is now recognised as one of the supreme English anthems.

The eagle lectern was carved by John Snetzler in 1773, and the silver candlesticks date from 1720. The altar cross of 1945 commemorates the 300th anniversary of Archbishop Laud’s execution in 1645.

The chapel also houses significant pieces of contemporary art. A small triptych of the Life of John the Baptist is by a local artist Nicholas Mynheer. The Baylie Chapel has a modern Coptic icon of the Baptism of Christ, made in Egypt. Two windows in the chapel by the stained glass artist Ervin Bossanyi depict scenes in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

White left instructions for services to be sung by a choir of men and boys. Laud gave the college its first pipe organ, but the original organ was removed in 1651. Nevertheless, Saint John’s continued to have a boys’ choir until the late 1960s.

A new organ was made for the chapel in 2008 by Bernard Aubertin, who also built the small chamber organ at the end of the choir stalls.

The Revd Dr Elizabeth Macfarlane is the Chaplain of Saint John’s College. Morning Prayer is said every weekday in full term at 8.30 am. Sung Evensong at 6 pm on Sundays includes an address by the Chaplain or a guest preacher, an anthem and three hymns. The Eucharist is celebrated on Mondays 12:15 pm and Choral Evensong is 6 pm on Wednesdays.

The wooden reredos behind the altar was made by Charles Kempe in 1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Tuesday 20 September 2022):

The Collect:

God of all tribes and peoples and tongues,
who called your servant John Coleridge Patteson
to witness in life and death to the gospel of Christ
amongst the peoples of Melanesia:
grant us to hear your call to service
and to respond trustfully and joyfully
to Jesus Christ our redeemer,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr John Coleridge Patteson:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Welcoming Refugees.’ Father Frank Hegedus, Chaplain of Saint Margaret’s in Budapest, spoke to USPG about how the Church in Hungary is helping refugees fleeing Ukraine.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe, which serves diverse communities across the continent and has been pivotal in responding to the recent crisis in Ukraine.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The eagle lectern was carved by John Snetzler in 1773 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Morning Prayer is said in the chapel every weekday in full term (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)