Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Sacred vs. Secular

Written by: on August 29, 2023

As I read Secret History of Oxford I am struck by a number of things, some interesting yet unsurprising but others quite unexpected. In any case, in a few weeks we are headed to a town that is obviously steeped in history like few other places on Earth. We’re talking about history that few of us can imagine, and it goes back centuries.

The University of Oxford is clearly home to a rich and long-standing legacy in matters of faith. Even so, I can’t help but notice that Oxford’s story is interwoven with violence, fighting and even religious persecution. As the religious landscape in Europe changed drastically, particularly around the time of the Reformation, Oxford was one of many stages where that drama played out.

Interestingly, from its outset, Oxford was designed to divide “Town vs. Gown”, to separate the sacred from the secular. From its inception, students were considered clerics, marked as such by their dress and appearance. They were even exempt from secular laws and instead were subject to religious courts, ultimately to the Pope. Riots ensued in 1355 followed by 500 years of contentious relationship between the academic world in Oxford and the ordinary people of the town. [1] During this time Oxford was of course staunchly Catholic until the infamous Henry VIII began to introduce Anglicanism as the state religion. What followed was a long period of suffering, martyrdom and persecution before Anglicanism was solidly established.

This leads me to two questions as we prepare to travel to Oxford in just a few weeks. We, the 21st century church, are no strangers to deeply painful church splits and denominational disputes. Although hopefully we’re experiencing fewer burnings at the stake in our day. I am curious to observe what the Christian landscape is currently like in Oxford. Are these tensions still making themselves felt? Is there still a noticeable Catholic presence? Is there a spirit of unity and cooperation between churches of different denominations? We read about Regent’s Park College which traces its roots back to the Baptist church. [2] Likewise, Mansfield College was founded to provide non-Anglicans with an option to study. [3] I wonder if that is still its primary mission today.

My second question circles back to the Town vs. Gown idea. I am interested to see what this looks like in 2023 in Oxford. Does there still exist a sense of separateness, a division between the sacred and the secular? I have trouble reconciling that division with my understanding of practical theology. In other words, I generally seek to integrate my faith in even the most mundane aspects of my life. I typically advocate for a holistic spirituality that breaks down those separations between sacred and secular. To me that speaks to the very nature of Jesus’ incarnation. He became fully human in order to redeem every mundane aspect of our humanness.

That said, I also understand the rationale behind consecrating and creating a certain “otherness” for those set apart as vocational ministers of the gospel. I fall into that category, as do many of you. I’m curious to explore this tension and to hear from current Oxford scholars how they approach the traditional view.

Likewise, I’m curious to hear from you, how do you wrestle with the sacred and the secular in your lives? Do you seek balance, integration or something else entirely? What resources have helped you in your reflections? Probably many of you are familiar with Tish Harrison Warren’s The Liturgy of the Ordinary. In the same vein I recently picked up Peter Dehaan’s Bridging the Sacred-Secular Divide: Celebrating the Spirituality of Everyday Life. Quirky but easy to read, Dehaan’s point is that every moment is holy and an occasion to celebrate our faith in Christ. [4]

In any case, I imagine we can all agree that Oxford is an impressive place. I hope you’re looking forward to visiting the town and the university as much as I am.

1 Paul Sullivan, The Secret History Of Oxford (New York: The History Press, 2013), 24.
2 Ibid. 81.
3 Ibid. 70.
4 Peter Dehaan, Bridging the Sacred-Secular Divide: Celebrating the Spirituality of Everyday Life (Rock Rooster Books, 2022).

About the Author


Kim Sanford

9 responses to “Sacred vs. Secular”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    Great questions, Kim. I resonated with Mansfield College’s inclusion of people outside the Church of England and would like to find parallels with other educational institutions. According to Walker, it would seem the spirit of that mission is still alive, at least in how they conduct chapel and how they go about selecting chaplains. Both are “Nonconformist” (in chapel structure and in selection of chaplains).

    Your question about how we wrestle with sacred vs. secular in our own lives should be someone’s NPO. Seriously, that’s a huge question. Intellectually, I understand that our faith should be lived “coram Deo,” in every space of our lives, but existentially (functionally?) I still bifurcate the two in many ways.

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    Kim thanks for your comments.

    I too wonder about the Oxford Academic Ivory Tower.

    Although a source of deep theological thought. What missions does Oxford host/foster/encourage. I am interested in seeing how the school/teacher/students fulfill the Great Commission.


    • mm Kim Sanford says:

      Russ, I too wonder about the intersection of the Ivory Tower and the working out the Great Commission in our world. Interestingly, in June I met Usha Reifsnider, Co-Regional Director for Europe for the Lausanne movement, and she lives in Oxford! Just coincidence or does the environment of Oxford foster big, amazing things of God even beyond the academic world?

  3. Cathy Glei says:

    Thank you for sharing about living your faith, holistically. I, too, generally integrate my faith into all aspects of life, not separating the sacred and secular. I desire for the Spirit’s presence to be so a part of who I am, that I leak Jesus (fruit). Have you used the app “Every Moment Holy” or “Divine Office”? Recently “A Liturgy for a Yard Sale” was posted. . . “Let us better learn this day what it means to travel light through this short life.”

  4. Esther Edwards says:

    I have thought much about how the sacred is designed to intersect every part of life (by the way, I have read Warren’s book several times!). We know that the Christian faith embodies a relationship with Christ and yet it can seem elusive. The mystery of God incarnate…being with us, yet embodying a greater depth than we could ever begin to fathom.
    When it does seem elusive to me, I am reminded of my aunt who just passed away. My aunt never had a higher degree and had a very hard life yet, grew to such deep maturity in faith. Her love for Christ was so tangible. She talked about “her Jesus” continually. One might have thought it was overdone, but she didn’t care. Jesus was in her thought life, kept her company, and truly was Emmanuel to her. Her passing was long and difficult, but even then, she did not complain, but was grateful for God’s love and grace.

  5. Jenny Dooley says:

    Kim, I love your questions! I will answer this one, How do you wrestle with the sacred and the secular in your lives? I just finished reading, The Jesuits Guide to Almost Everything, by James Martin, SJ. I’m doing a bit more reading on Ignatian Spirituality for my NPO. Ignatian spirituality strives to “see God in all things.” I have been moving more and more toward not seeing the sacred and secular as divided or opposing one another. That division seems to cause me a lot of internal confusion. All of life is sacred. I wonder if we confuse holy “behavior” and the concept of what is sacred to our detriment. I listen to some very hard life stories, unholy behavior included, and yet it feels like a sacred space for me to hold those experiences. A blessing by Jan Richardson entitled, Blessing the Body, keeps me in that space. What are your thoughts on the sacred and the secular?

  6. Adam Harris says:

    Great posts Kim!

    “I typically advocate for a holistic spirituality that breaks down those separations between sacred and secular. To me that speaks to the very nature of Jesus’ incarnation. He became fully human in order to redeem every mundane aspect of our humanness.”

    I agree, the farther I move along my spiritual journey the more I am seeing the sacred in “the secular”. I also think its healthy to integrate and not compartmentalize everything so much into categories of good and bad, sacred and secular. Personally, I think this is the root of making constant judgments on ourselves and others.

    The question I’m trying, not always succeeding, to ask more these days in whatever space I’m in is, “Is this loving or not?”. Like Brother Lawrences book, Practicing the Presence, how can I recognize God in people and in whatever space I’m in and express Christ’s heart here? Looking forward to reconnecting in London!

  7. mm John Fehlen says:

    Your post brought to mind a memory from about 15 years ago. I was sitting at a local coffeeshop in Salem, Oregon (shout out to The Ike Box). I have very clear memory of this: I was wearing ripped blue jeans, and a tattered t-shirt and a baseball cap. I sat in an oversized chair reading the Scripture off of my iPad.

    Then, in walked a PRIEST. I know this sounds like the lead up to a joke. He was in full priestly “gown” including the white clerical collar. He sat down across from me, and began to read his Catholic edition Bible.

    We were both “men of God” and yet any onlooker could clearly tell WHO was WHO. I was just another dude with his iPad, and then there was, well, the priest.

    I was town. He was gown.

    And yet, looks can be deceiving. Sacred? Secular? It’s not always easy to tell the difference, is it?

  8. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Great to be back to reading your interesting posts, Kim! I like how you drive us back to heart issues and opportunities for greater communion.

    The “Town vs Gown” dynamic also stuck with me. I appreciate your comment: “does there still exist a sense of separateness, a division between the sacred and the secular?” To take this in a slightly different direction, I wonder how the association of religion with education AND the separation of that group with the rest of the world of that time, impacts our society today?

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