Now, this didn’t happen. Instead, before we ate, (almost) all stood in silence for Grace. At the end of the meal, the same behaviour was expected. Why do we do this?
It’s traditional, sure, but so was beating your wife until recently. Neither will etiquette nor manners suffice.
A sign of respect, perhaps. Respect for the religious ceremony? This is the most common justification that I’ve heard, but surely it is the worst of the lot. Not because one shouldn’t respect religious practice – one should – but because it presupposes the legitimacy of this practice.
And its illegitimacy is the most patent fact of the matter. If we are not to give the same air-time to every religion – and I assume we won’t – then none should be so recognised. We live in a pluralistic, putatively liberal, democracy. The separation of church and state is widely accepted. Why not of church and college?
There are no reasons to stand in silence for Grace. But there is also a reason for not doing it. At least in my College, silence is actually expected from the point at which those on High Table – the dons of Oriel College – enter the hall, and second time around, right up to the exit of the last of them. Our culture deems standing in silence a sign of extreme deference, even of obsequiousness. No one warrants this.
A few years ago Christopher Hitchens wrote a rousing article for Slate, in which he urged the reader to resist rude waiters who butt in to pour your wine for you. He admitted it was not the most pressing issue but nevertheless insisted, on the grounds that it was both manifestly absurd and easily remedied.
My intentions are his. Next time you stand at formal hall, ask yourself why? If you can think only of ‘because everyone else does’, or any of the above reasons, then stay seated.
Oriel College is an ancient institution and so unsurprisingly its community rituals may seem arcane to us. Yet until relatively recently the Christian faith both united and defined the Oriel community, and communal grace was a natural part of this. Likewise the ‘extreme deference’ of silence, however distasteful, is a remnant of a hierarchical order of the past. These are integral parts of the Oriel Formal, giving it, and the wider college, a distinct identity. Preserving this identity requires a level of social pressure, otherwise the college would become nothing more than the sum of its parts. But for Sean, individuality is inviolable; and anything that threatens it must be destroyed.
Let’s explore his suggestions. Imagine we replaced Formal Hall with a canteen system. People congregate in small groups, ignoring the rest, eat quickly and return to the solitude of their rooms. No grace is allowed; individual opinions are placed ahead of group ideals. It’s logical, efficient and non-offensive to individual sensibilities. Not to mention soulless. Without community you don’t get freedom; you get atomisation.
Atomisation is the process by which society literally falls apart. And it’s happening all around us. Headphones on, door locked, we sit alone in our rooms counting our number of online virtual friends. It has a detrimental effect on our work, as we’re unable to hear the opinions of others, and is a major welfare issue, as we feel less able to discuss our problems. Hall, bops and other such events play a crucial part in combating atomisation within the student body.
Formal Hall epitomises what is best about this place; the ability to involve students in a communal way of living and thinking, thus challenging their own self-interest. It helps create a support network that helps students far beyond graduation. A little conformity, and a little dampening of the ego, is surely a price worth paying.