Bishop Guli's speech on receiving an honorary degree from the University of Leicester

Oration by Bishop Guli at University of Leicester Graduation Ceremonies, 16 January 2020

Vice Chancellor, graduates and graduands, ladies and gentlemen, it goes without saying that I’m deeply grateful and feel very privileged to be receiving this honorary doctorate from Leicester University - an institution that continues going from strength to strength as a place of learning, with a diverse staff and student body.

In the weeks leading up to this ceremony I’ve been looking back on my own university education, as an undergraduate and then twice as a post graduate. I’ve reflected on the amazing opportunities I was given and of how universities have played such a significant part in shaping my life. No matter what our background and who we are, universities are great levellers. Places where everyone should have the same opportunities, where there is potential for development well beyond the scope of the subject we happen to be studying, places where deep friendships are made and where, no matter what age we are, we mature and deepen in understanding and learn more about ourselves.

I want, if I may, to share some thoughts with you from the writings of the 19th century theologian and poet Cardinal Newman. Newman was a controversial figure but also a towering intellect who had a teaching post at Oxford University. He was ordained in the Church of England but later became a Roman Catholic and was canonized by Pope Francis just last year on 13th October 2019.

Newman wrote at some length about the purpose and impact of universities. I’m going to offer you just two brief quotations. This is the first:

Why do we educate, except to prepare for the world?  Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except for this world? [A university] is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men [and women] of the world for the world.  We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world … when their time comes; but we can prepare them …

(From Discourse IX, The Idea of a University)

As I offer my best wishes to all those graduating today I hope that you will step out into the world with confidence and great excitement. You’ve dipped your toes into the pool of learning but you leave this place with so much more, gained from the wider experiences you’ve had which I hope will have stretched your mind and your horizons.  I hope you’ll take with you into the future all that you’ve absorbed from your years at Leicester University, that you’ll build on it and never stop learning, growing and developing.

And secondly, a word for those who stay behind - academic staff in particular. This is what Newman had to say:

An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.

(From Historical Sketches, Volume III, "The Rise and Progress of Universities," Chapter I, Section 6)

Here I want to pay tribute to Professor Ursula King who was Head of Department in the Theology and Religious Studies department of Bristol University where I did my PhD and she was my doctoral supervisor during the early 1990s. All these years later I can only speak of her with warmth and gratitude for she played a profound part in my life. Having studied music as an undergraduate, she took a risk on me, taking me on initially as an MA student in Theology. She helped sharpen my thinking and taught me the necessary skills for doing research. But perhaps even more significantly she developed my sense of confidence because she believed in me and she took an interest in me as a person. Professor King is now in her 80s but we are still in touch. I will always be indebted to her.

None of us should underestimate the potential impact we might have on others and that should inspire us always to act generously, especially towards those who are disadvantaged in any way or have had a tougher start in life. We may not always be aware of it but those in positions of authority and learning have immense power to do good or harm. Either way the consequences can be life long.

And I’m profoundly aware of this in the church too. I am deeply honoured to be the first woman from a BAME background to be a bishop in the Church of England but there are still only two of us and not many more BAME men. I take very seriously our efforts here in Leicester Diocese to increase the number of BAME people in all areas of church life. There is still a long way to go and the church has a great deal to learn. But I’m delighted to be amongst those working for change, not just because it’s the right and just thing to do but because until we are properly representative of the full diversity of God’s creation in every way then the church remains a diminished version of what it could and should be.

As a university I’m sure you have much to teach us and I look forward to developing even stronger links with you in the future. 

Thank you for listening and my very best wishes to you all.

Guli Francis-DehqaniLeicester University GraduationDe Montfort Hall, 16th January 2020

(You can read our news story about the honorary award by clicking here)




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