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Oxford Halls report queries Wycliffe’s liberal principles

09 August 2007

by Bill Bowder

Aerial view of Oxford PA

Aerial view of Oxford PA

PERMANENT Private Halls in Oxford should keep their relationship with the University, a review panel recommends. The Halls, which include the theological colleges Wycliffe Hall and St Stephen’s House, have been questioned about their academic standards, as well as their liberal credentials and management styles.

The University’s control over the Halls should be tightened so that they maintain Oxford’s “liberal” tradition in teaching and ethos, says the Review of the Permanent Private Halls Associated with the University of Oxford, which was sent to the University Council last month.

The seven Halls, four of which are Roman Catholic (St Benet’s Hall, Greyfriars, Blackfriars, and Campion Hall), and one Baptist (Regent’s Park), in addition to the two Anglican foundations, are all “characterised by a religious origin and a Christian ethos”, says the report.

The review says the Halls have “a useful place in the larger University academic endeavour”, and can see “no reason to advocate the ending of the University’s relationship with them”. Yet it finds “discrepancies of substance” between the structures and assumptions of the Halls and of the University, and recommends that these be eliminated. A supervisory committee should report annually to the University Council to check that changes have been made, it suggests.

The report is concerned that not all students attending the Halls appear to know the nature of these institutions, which are often not their first choice. It is also concerned about the undergraduate and graduate experience offered by the Halls, and the transparency, strength, and

stability of their governance.

The review, which was set up in July last year, was under way before controversy over styles of leadership at Wycliffe Hall, one of the largest of the Halls, became public (News, 18 May). The Principal of Wycliffe Hall, the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, was criticised for his managerial style, and accused of using disciplinary measures to stifle debate. Some also questioned his approach to the ministry of women.

Referring to these accusations in an appendix, the report says: “There is a persistent concern outside Wycliffe about whether the strong emphasis on the Evangelical tradition in some way inflects the teaching of theology and ministry into a narrow compass of interpretation.”

Wycliffe students are not getting “an Oxford experience in its essentials”, it says. Some young people come from Christian families who are looking for an Oxford education in a Christian context. But they are mixing mainly with older ordinands, and the educational environment is not suitable for there “full intellectual development”.

Although some of those at Wycliffe Hall told the panel that the Evangelical tradition was not exclusive, and that a range of opinions exists there, the report suggests that Wycliffe Hall needs to “make a determined effort to clarify these matters to the rest of the University if it is to achieve manifest harmony with the University’s principles of education”.

In its list of 34 recommendations, the review says that the University should have greater legal control over the Halls. The University’s “licence”, under which the Halls operate, should not be seen as giving them the right to move outside “the values to which the University holds, namely the values of liberal education conducted in a spirit of free and critical enquiry and debate”. If any Hall departs from such values, its licence should be “re-examined”.

The Halls should not be allowed to override the University’s policies on equal opportunities, harassment, and the protection of freedom of opinion and speech, the report says.

“The review panel believes that there should be a considerably greater say in the running of their institutions for the stipendiary academic staff, as in other parts of the collegiate University. In addition, it is not confident that all the Halls have the appropriate structures for the consideration of matters of academic discipline or the resolution of complaints.”

At present, many of those training for Christian ministry in the Halls do not receive Oxford qualifications, but the report recommends that Halls should award only Oxford qualifications, in order to avoid damaging the University’s reputation. It also suggests that some of the current students are not not equipped academically to take such qualifications. At Wycliffe, there has been a proposal that part of a Bachelor of Ministry (BM) degree would be taught at St Paul’s Theological Centre at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

The Principal of St Stephen’s House, Canon Dr Robin Ward, said on Tuesday that he was concerned how the ordination training and the requirements of Oxford University to give only Oxford qualifications would fit together, given that the average age of Anglican ordinands was 41, and therefore they were unlikely to do more than a two-year course. Even an Oxford certificate in theology could be too demanding for some, he said.

The four members of the panel were Sir Colin Lucas, Warden of Rhodes House, who chaired the group; Canon Dr Judith Maltby, Chaplain of Corpus Christi College; Dr Sue Gillingham, Tutor in Theology at Worcester College; and Dr Christopher Haigh, Tutor in Modern History at Christ Church.

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