The peculiar green copper upside-down ice-cream cone that sits atop Greyfriars in east Oxford is not among the best known or best loved of the city's dreaming spires. And for much of the past 50 years, since it was given the status of a permanent private hall in the university, Greyfriars has been regarded as a sleepy Catholic backwater, with part-time fellows tutoring a dozen or so undergraduates each year, under the auspices of the Capuchin Franciscan religious order
But over the past few months, Greyfriars has become the talk of the university. An almighty row has engulfed it and now threatens to involve the Pope. The Capuchins' out-of-the-blue announcement of plans to close Greyfriars within months has put them at loggerheads with staff and students who believe the private hall remains viable. They want it to continue under lay management.
But it is the Capuchins' apparent refusal even to discuss any such compromise that has caused most astonishment in Catholic circles, with Dr Donal Lowry, fellow in history at Greyfriars, accusing the order of being on an "ideological mission to disentangle themselves, as quickly as possible and at whatever cost, from any involvement in what they see as an elitist university".
It all began quietly enough. In October last year, the Capuchins announced that they had neither the manpower nor the finances to continue running Greyfriars and wanted to end their educational mission in the city – an endeavour that dates back to the time of their founder, St Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century. There are just 42 friars left in the whole of the English "province" of the Franciscan order. So, with regret, the order said it was going to relinquish its prized university licence that allows it to operate Greyfriars as one of seven permanent private halls (PPH) at Oxford.
For its part, the university made all the right noises – though some suspected that after its own recent review of Greyfriars had described it as "struggling against the odds", the news may have come as something of a relief.
Arrangements were accordingly made to transfer existing Greyfriars students in the summer of 2008 to Regent's Park College, until recently a Baptist-run PPH, now officially an ecumenical establishment within Oxford University.
But then the fellows and lecturers at Greyfriars came forward, with student backing, with an offer to take on the running of the PPH.It would see the Capuchins remain as nominal trustees, but delegate all day-to-day management to a lay board. It is an arrangement common in many schools once run by religious orders. A former warden of Greyfriars, Father Tom Weinandy, who belongs to the American, not the English province of the order, has indicated his willingness to return to Oxford to assume the chairmanship of this new governing body.
Pledges have even been obtained from alumni to cover the cost of re-establishing Greyfriars in new premises, leaving the Capuchins to do as they please with the existing buildings. Rumour has it that they plan to sell them.
So far, however, these seemingly reasonable suggestions have been rejected by the English Capuchins. Fellows and students accuse them of having acted in a less than transparent fashion.
Only weeks before making their announcement, the Friars had welcomed the chancellor of the university, Chris (Lord) Patten, to a garden party under the green spire to celebrate 50 years of Greyfriars' contribution of theology, history, English and law undergraduates to the university pool (with five firsts for the 13 students who sat finals in 2007). The Catholic former Tory minister and other guests listened as plans to modernise and expand this flint-fronted outpost of learning on the Iffley Road were informally discussed. Greyfriars has already gone mixed and opened its doors to non-Catholics and some would like to see it run as, effectively, a mini Oxford college.
The monks, however, clearly had very different ideas and, by all accounts, had already taken their fateful decision to close Greyfriars. It was a verdict reached without any consultation with staff or students. "The first time I heard there was any threat to the future of Greyfriars," says Lowry, "was when the announcement of closure was made. They had gone completely behind our backs and betrayed us."
The Capuchins' subsequent reluctance since to sit down with staff and student representatives – most recently following the final governors' meeting of term – has caused bewilderment. "It would not advance matters," the Capuchins said of the most recent proposed meeting. Certainly not their preferred option, anyway.
The acting warden, Father Mark Elvins, politely declines all invitations to comment. "I am acting under monastic obedience," he tells me, "and cannot say anything about it." Meanwhile, Father James Boner, head of the English province, refers all requests on to a press spokesman, Barry Hudd. For his part, he insists there is nothing to discuss. "The Capuchins have agreed to surrender their licence to the university and its terms are such that they cannot assign it to anyone else or any other form of management. The university has made that absolutely clear to us. And even if it were, it would still leave the Capuchins in the impossible position of having the final responsibility for Greyfriars but no part in its operation which is something, we have been told, that the charity commissioners would not countenance."
The university itself does not want to be drawn publicly into the row, but the campaigners hotly dispute Mr Hudd's claims. They point to arrangements that have been made, with university approval, to alter the management structure of other PPHs, including Regent's Park. And Dr Penny Cookson, fellow in Latin at Greyfriars, reports a recent meeting with senior university figures. "They made it plain," she insists, "that they would happily consider our proposals regarding the licence if we had the backing of the Capuchins."
Once Trinity term ends at Oxford on 14 June, all possibility of mounting a rescue will, the protesters believe, be lost. And the Capuchins appear to be gritting their teeth and sitting it out, ignoring, in the process, increasingly urgent appeals for compromise from the local prelate, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, the papal nuncio in London, Archbishop Faustino Munoz, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. He has written to the Capuchins directly, urging them "to ensure the licence is retained".
"Saving Greyfriars is not some romantic idea," says Father Gareth Jones, one of the campaigners. "It is a serious-minded proposal by the fellows and lecturers to secure a future for an excellent academic institution now faced with imminent closure if the licence is surrendered by the Capuchins."
Father Jones is a canon lawyer, specialising in Catholicism's complex internal legal system. Because of its vows of poverty, he explains, the Capuchin order cannot, in theory, own anything, including a university licence on an Oxford hall. A strong case can be made, he argues, that the licence belongs to the Church and is therefore vested in the office of the Pope on behalf of the faithful. And so Father Jones is in Rome this week, hoping, via canon law, to persuade the Vatican, on behalf of the Pope, to intervene directly and force the Capuchins to reconsider.
In their present mood, it seems even a Vatican directive may not be enough to budge the Capuchins in the race against the clock to stop Greyfriars dying by default. Their refusal to engage in the rescue mission has left them with few friends in the Church. "At present," says Lowry, "they are acting rather like the Burmese junta."
It is a charge Barry Hudd robustly rejects as "totally untrue". The Capuchins, he says, "do not have any ideological or dogmatic agenda behind this decision. It is a purely practical decision they have been forced to make."
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