Living Up to Its Blue China – The University Church of St Mary the Virgin

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The University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High can lay claim to a glorious Wildean anecdote. It relates to a now-infamous comment made by Oscar who publicly lamented ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china’. John Burgon, Vicar of St Mary’s in the 1870s, was not amused and preached a sermon against Wilde’s ‘blue china’ remark in which he railed:

When a young man says, not in polished banter but in sober earnestness, that he finds it difficult to live up to the level of his blue china, there has crept into these cloistered shades a form of heathenism which it is our bounden duty to fight against and crush out if possible.

It was, Wilde later remarked, ‘the first time that the absolute stupidity of the English people was ever revealed to me’.

Whether you identify as Christian or not, this is a beautiful church and a trip up the tower affords one of the best panoramic views of Oxford. Comic actor Kenneth Williams (1926-1988), who mentioned Oxford on a couple of occasions in his legendary diary, described this succinctly in the entry for 24 May 1975:

Michael W[hittaker] drove us to Oxford where we mounted the winding stairs to the balcony of St Mary’s church tower & obtained a superb view of the city . . . it was magnificent! The old Bodleian and Balliol looking superb, and the bells ringing for evensong . . . the organ was playing some Buxtehude, so everything was perfect. M. drove us then to Woodstock where we had tea & scones before returning to London.

Today, you do not have to travel to Woodstock for a decent cuppa. The divinity of this church reaches into its café, the Vaults & Garden. A pot of tea and a scone or two here are highly recommended.


Image: As the official church of the University of Oxford, St Mary’s has never shied away from facing up to issues which matter most to the city’s students. A number of ads in Daily Information show that the church hosted public debates on LGBTQ-themed topics since the 1970s. This ad is from 18 February 1977.

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