In March 1988, I boarded a plane bound for communist Prague, with a suitcase full of banned Bible commentaries and other theological books, a considerable amount of money, and the contact details of several Czech dissidents whom I had never met, written in code in the margins of the pages of a novel. This was the end of a long period of planning and preparation to attempt perhaps the most daring project undertaken by the various ‘underground universities’ operating covertly behind the Iron Curtain.
Our aim was to provide a degree-level qualification in that most dangerous of banned subjects in a totalitarian communist regime – Christian Theology. A degree course accredited by Cambridge University. Secretly, under the noses of the authorities. And more or less secret from the university authorities in Cambridge too.
Our dozen or so students were of all ages, including former academics who had been dismissed from their posts. All were made to work in the most menial of jobs and continually harassed by the authorities, as a result of coming under the suspicion of the secret police. I managed to make contact with the group (a story that deserves telling at another time) and to set up the secret courses and administrative processes for delivering lectures, assessing essays, holding examinations, and spiriting the papers and certificates in and out of the country.
We sent a series of Cambridge theologians into the country covertly to teach, including a Regius Professor who later became the Bishop of Ely, and who was present in Wenceslas Square when the revolution took place; he declared his participation in the programme to be the most important thing he had ever done in his life. We chose people who would not panic if they were arrested, when the biggest danger would be to the Czech dissidents; the British visitor would likely just undergo a day or two of uncomfortable interrogation and then be ejected from the country.
We had several students who completed the course, including one who was active in the ‘Velvet Revolution’ itself. I understand that the morning after the revolution, the manager where he was employed as a stoker rang his landlady when he failed to turn up for work, and she was able to respond “O I’m sorry, he won’t be coming to work any more, he’s now the Foreign Minister, goodbye!”
In 2018, the Czech Government and Cambridge University honoured this project as a way of reminding the next generation in both countries of the fragility of freedom, and what it can take to reclaim freedom when it has been lost. A brass plaque was unveiled in the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, positioned where it must be passed by all students entering the main lecture hall.
Conscious as I am of all the Christians in the United Kingdom in the past few years who have been arrested, questioned by Police, harassed by authorities, threatened with loss of their children, thrown off their university courses or sacked – unreported for the most part by mainstream media – I commented that perhaps we would need to set up an ‘underground university’ in the UK soon, taught by Czech academics, to re-learn how to think and question and debate properly, and thus to reclaim our freedom.
Perhaps it is now time?
Steve Blunden – Interim Regional Controller for London & South East