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All change at Selly Oak

02 November 2006

TO TAKE the pulse of the historic missionary heart of England, you could not avoid looking through the archives of the College of the Ascension. Work through its photographs and its registers, and the changing faces of its students tell a fascinating story.

The college opened its doors in 1923, just when the British Empire had reached its widest extent. While women were jostling for access to university education and the vote, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) had already been training and sending women missionaries abroad for more than 50 years (two-thirds of British missionaries by this time were women).

The opening of the college in the leafy suburb of Selly Oak in south-west Birmingham added to what church historian Adrian Hastings called the emerging "mini-university" of small colleges at Selly Oak, built with Cadbury vision and generosity. Until this moment, the Federation of Selly Oak Colleges had been an exclusively Nonconformist project, and for a traditionally aloof high-church Anglican society to send its women there was, as one Quaker onlooker observed, "an amazing step".

The step was taken at the urging of the Bishop of Birmingham, Charles Gore, not least because Selly Oak was becoming recognised in progressive missionary circles. The College of the Ascension’s rather Lutyens-style building and dramatic chapel were opened by Princess Mary and Archbishop Davidson, giving a thoroughly Anglican launch to what became a truly ecumenical adventure.

FOR 40 YEARS, the college remained an exclusively women’s institution (SPG’s men, mostly clergy, were generally assumed to need no further preparation). Diversifying the enterprise, SPG started to bring women from overseas to the college, particularly from Asia, and some of them were to play exceptionally creative roles on their return.

By the 1960s, the atmosphere of the college that had seemed so radical in the 1920s looked like "rigid, unnecessary strictness". The age of marriage was coming down and the numbers of single women offering to serve with SPG were falling. The college felt a fresh impulse to review its purpose.

In 1965, what became the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) after the merger of SPG with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, relaunched the college and opened its doors to male missionary candidates for the first time. With rapid decolonisation, the era of omniscient clerical missionaries was over and, in theory at least, the College of the Ascension’s new task was to train women and men to serve in post-colonial Churches in a post-colonial world.

The number of missionaries prepared at the college remained high into the 1980s, but numbers from Britain declined rapidly thereafter. A new phase, however, gave fresh purpose to the College of the Ascension. This began in the 1970s with a request from the Church of the Province of Southern Africa to provide an opportunity for black potential leaders to live and study for a time outside the apartheid oppression.

Out of the South African experience grew a bursaries programme that brought hundreds of mid-career women and men from Third World Churches for forms of training not available, at that time, in their home countries. The appointment of college staff from Africa and Asia was an accompanying development and the interaction of cultures and politics, liturgies, and theologies brought new lessons for everyone.

The same was true of the Federation of Selly Oak Colleges as a whole, by now a learning community of 400 people from an average of 60 countries. As an African student put it, Selly Oak "brought the universe together at one point", and a wide range of programmes was introduced to help previously missionary-dominated churches shape themselves anew.

Amid increasing financial uncertainties, and with a seeming weakening of ecumenical commitment, the Selly Oak Federation was wound up during the 1990s. At the same time it was an era of bold initiatives for USPG and in 1996 there was agreement to join the Methodists to form the United College of the Ascension.

Next year, the college moves to the campus of the Queen’s Foundation in Edgbaston as The Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies. Given that small colleges are becoming decreasingly viable and the British Churches are less willing to support mission agencies, it’s a prudent move.

Many of the good things that the College of the Ascension and its United successor have done so well will continue to be done, of course. But if its past is any picture of the future, many new developments in mission will no doubt be pioneered, too.

For more details about the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies visit www.uspg.org.uk or www.methodist.org.uk

Canon Dr Daniel O’Connor was Principal of the College of the Ascension from 1982 to 1990. In 2000 he was responsible for USPG’s tercentennial history Three Centuries of Mission (Continuum). His book Interesting Times in India: A short decade at St Stephen’s College was published by Penguin India in June and is available via the internet

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