Principal’s changes lead to resignations and wall of silence

17 May 2007

by Bill Bowder

WYCLIFFE HALL, Oxford, is the focus of a dispute involving allegations of a culture of bullying and intimidation, and of an ultra-conservative attitude to women.

The governing Council of the theological college, a permanent private hall of the University, is chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones. This week it said that it had embarked on a review of the college’s governance.

The complaints centre on the management style of the Principal, the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, and his appointment of the Revd Simon Vibert as Vice-Principal. Mr Vibert had made public his belief that women should not teach men.

He co-wrote, with the Revd Dr Mark Burkill and the Revd Dr David Peterson, a Latimer Trust paper that argued that a woman on her own should not teach men about faith or lead a congregation (Ministry Work Group Statement concerning the ministry of women in the Church today).

Since Dr Turnbull was appointed in 2005, six full-time or part-time academic staff have resigned posts. In a letter of resignation to Dr Turnbull in March, the former director of studies, Dr Philip Johnston, accused him of leadership “without significant regard for your staff colleagues”. Dr Johnston wrote that the new Vice-Principal had been appointed despite a “very strong consensus” of staff and students in favour of a different candidate.

Copies of emails suggest that staff and students were then ordered not to speak to the press.

The former Principal, the Revd Professor Alister McGrath, said that it would be “quite inappropriate” for him to comment. But he now had no connection with the college.

When the former Vice-Principal, the Revd Dr David Wenham, resigned last October, Dr Elaine Storkey, a broadcaster teaching at the college, is understood to have objected when she was told “under no circumstances” to speak to the media; and to have told Dr Turnbull that she reserved the right to speak on any matter not directly related to the college’s “inner workings”.


Dr Storkey said on Tuesday: “A lot has happened since then.” But she confirmed that she would not speak to the press.

Dr Turnbull, it is understood, told staff that Dr Wenham resigned because of “disagreement with myself as Principal over matters of leadership and management”.

A further complaint is that the new leadership had signed Anglican Mainstream’s “Covenant for the Church of England”, which warns bishops to be “biblically orthodox” if they are to retain the convenanters’ loyalty.

The Revd Rob Merchant, an ex-president of the common room, now a lecturer at Staffordshire University, said on Wednesday that he was watching “the demise of a beloved theological college”.

“Under the guidance of people like Professor Alister McGrath, Wycliffe Hall was a place of generous orthodoxy able to encompass a spectrum of views and offer support and respect to students and staff alike,” he said. He had watched, “bewildered”, as excellent staff had left, one after another, with little or no communication from the current management.

In one of the documents sent to the Church Times, two members of the governing Council are said to have visited the college and to have been “shocked by the hostility they found at every level of the community to Dr Turnbull”. They also found many were dismayed by the Council’s “laissez-faire attitude” to the issues, it says.

Dr Turnbull said on Wednesday that women were welcome to train as priests at Wycliffe Hall, and that their numbers had increased “significantly”. He said that, balancing Mr Vibert’s appointment, he also appointed the Revd Will Donaldson, a Charismatic, who was in favour of women’s ministry “at every level”. Mr Donaldson, from the Willesden area in London diocese, has been appointed as director of Christian leadership. Both men start work on 1 August.

Dr Turnbull said that the Council had reaffirmed his leadership of the college on Tuesday. He would not comment further, as disciplinary proceedings were under way.

A Council statement on Tuesday said: “The Council has embarked on a major review of its governance and a new development strategy for the future of the Hall in the light of changing patterns of ministerial formation. This inevitably involves changes that are unsettling.

“Wycliffe is committed to maintaining its Evangelical ethos and its international reputation for excellence in theological education, ministerial formation, and training for Christian leadership in the Church and the world.

“At a meeting of the Council to consider the report of a specially commissioned ‘listening process’, the Council unanimously reiterated its support for the Principal and committed itself to facilitate the necessary changes.”

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