Inspectors question the mood at Oxford theological colleges

18 March 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Great relief: the Revd Dr Mark Chapman, Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, shaves for Comic Relief on Friday. He raised £1000. He had had a beard for 22 years, and took 22 minutes to remove it. See letters

Great relief: the Revd Dr Mark Chapman, Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, shaves for Comic Relief on Friday. He raised £1000. He had had a b...

FALLOUT continues from the changes of “four testing years” at Wycliffe Hall, the theological college in Oxford (News, 18 May 2007) where there are “some deeply wounded spirits”, says an inspection report prepared for the House of Bishops.

The five-yearly reports on theological colleges used to be confidential. The Wycliffe report was published on the Church of England website this week, along with one on St Stephen’s House, Oxford. The colleges were graded in 13 areas with “Confidence”, “Confidence with qualifications”, or “No confidence”.

The Revd Dr Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephen’s House, said on Wednesday: “We were of course surprised that the reports came to be published in full, with unexpected assessment criteria, which we didn’t know until after the inspection process had finished.”

Both colleges are declared “fit for purpose”.

WYCLIFFE HALL gets a grading of “Confidence” in eight of the outcomes, and “Confidence with qualifications” in four. But the inspectors expressed “No confidence” in Practical and Pastoral Theology. Students lack tutorial direction in choosing placements, and are not sufficiently challenged “to move beyond their comfort zones”.

The four inspectors were led by Canon Ian Bunting, a former Bishop’s Research Officer for the diocese of Southwell. The others were Professor Elaine Graham from the University of Manchester; the Ven. Dr William Jacob, Archdeacon of Charing Cross; and Canon Stephen Taylor, Provost of Sunderland Minster.

They call for a more rigorous approach to the integration of theology and practice, and make five substantive recommendations.

Strengths include “the common purpose that unites staff and students in forming ordinands, women as much as men, for leadership in the Church of England; the clarity of the Hall’s aims and purposes in relation to preaching, teaching, pastoral care and evangelism”; and “a rich mosaic of Evangelical traditions that come together in a community that affirms distinctive strengths and shows respect for differences”.

The college has 66 ordinands, nine of whom are women, and 44 other resident students. It is acknowledged to have had “testing years” since the introduction of strategic plans by the new Principal, the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, in 2005.

His perceived narrowing of representation at Wycliffe provoked staff resignations, the sacking of one prominent Open Evangelical, Dr Elaine Storkey, and the redundancy of two other members of staff. Litigation followed (News, 11 January 2008). None the less, the inspectors say that they “are confident that Wycliffe Hall supports and encourages all expressions of evangelical Anglican conviction”.

They say the evidence they received endorses the wisdom of initiating the new structures, and they find that these are working well. But they emphasise that structures need to be reviewed, and opportunities for reconciliation sought. The college’s reputation is still “showing the bruises”.

The inspection team received evidence “that the leadership of the Principal and senior staff is respected. . . However, we have also received evidence of an over-directive element within the practice of management at present which does not have the wholehearted trust and confidence of all the staff.”

The inspectors recommend “a staff-wide process of consultation on the nature of ‘leadership’ and ‘delega­tion’ appropriate for a theological college that trains men and women for church leadership”. More remains to be done, they say, “not least in terms of theological reflection”.

The college is taken to task for not electing a staff member to the council, and recommended to “consult, collaborate and co-operate” with the Oxford Partnership for Theological Education and Training when making appointments.

This is one of two recom­menda­tions from the previous inspection in 2004, which they note has “not been fully carried through”. The other is the “more extensive use of Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer in chapel”.

The inspectors also want worship to be more reflective. And they express surprise at “the very limited amount of biblical material in the daily services”.

The response of the senior management team on Tuesday made no reference to shortcomings. But the Bishops of Liverpool, Chester, and Birmingham, who are on the hall’s governing body, the Hall Council, said in a statement: “We regret that the inspectors have judged it right to declare that they have no confidence in one area of the Hall’s life. . . We will ensure that the recommen­da­tions . . . are given speedy and particular attention.”

THE inspection report on St Stephen’s House, Oxford, is more robust in its language and criticism, despite the fact that the college has eight “Confidence” ratings, five “Confidence with qualifications”, and no “No confidence” ratings.

The chief inspector was the Ven. Robert Langley, a former Archdeacon of Lindisfarne. He was accompanied by Professor Anthony Berry from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School; Canon Sue Field, DDO for Leicester diocese; and the Revd Mark Sowerby, Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate.

They observe two contrasting cur­rents: a greater sense of internal con­fidence, but also an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future which is described variously as “par­a­l­ysis” and even “siege mentality”.

The House has 25 ordinands, 21 men and four women, and 35 other students. It has not implemented the 2003 recommendation to appoint an ordained woman to the core teaching staff, and is recommended to do so urgently.

Identified chief strengths are “its expression of the variety, richness and depth of the Catholic tradition and commitment to its distinctive insights and values; clear emphasis on priestly formation within a parish model of ministry”. The quality and scholarship of the staff is praised, and the college’s presence in the University of Oxford: BA students at the House are awarded “a disproportionate number of Firsts”.

Growing confidence about what it stands for is “pretty much cancelled out by anxiety” about, among other issues, the Code of Practice relating to women bishops, and the future of the parish system.

The inspectors observe: “Although not all the students are against the ordination of women, all feel the anxiety of those who cannot accept it, and their sense of rejection by the Church of England.”

Issues of moderation are known to be a concern in the inspections, notably the distinction between general problems for theological education and critical problems for individual institutions. Study of both reports can reveal categories and recommendations sometimes at odds with each other.

Dr Ward, Principal of St Stephen’s House since 2006, echoed this: “I feel that a question needs to be asked about how the inspection teams have moderated common issues between the colleges, as there seems to be little evidence of this.”

But he has welcomed the report. “We look forward to addressing the issues raised for attention.”

The reports are available at:

Should theological colleges continue to reflect a distinctive church tradition?

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