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The lead the C of E declined to follow

27 September 2013

Bernard Palmer reads the full tale of two Birmingham colleges


The Latter Glory of This House: A history of two Christian Commonwealths in modern Britain, 1828-1890
Andrew Chandler
DLT £18.99

TWO ecumenical endeavours came to a head in England at the end of the 1960s. One of them, the Anglican-Methodist reunion scheme, failed to achieve a large enough majority vote when it came before the Church of England's Church Assembly in July 1969. The other, the proposal to unite the Anglican Queen's College, Birmingham, with the Methodist Handsworth College, was triumphantly approved.

The fusion of Birmingham's two theological colleges forms the climax to this definitive but highly readable account by a professional historian who is now the Director of the George Bell Institute at the University of Chichester. It is a success story likely to rejoice the hearts of those still depressed by the failure of the national scheme to win through. The college merger may not have amounted to all that much in the national scheme of things; but it is at least a pointer to what may be accomplished at the local level.

Andrew Chandler points out that the individual problems of the two colleges throughout the years present many similarities. The Anglican Queen's College was 50 years senior to its Methodist counterpart; indeed, it was one of the oldest theological colleges in Britain. But, like Handsworth, it suffered many ups and downs, and fluctuating numbers of students caused grave logistical problems. It was even closed down for years at a time - and not only in both world wars, when Handsworth likewise was unable to operate normally.

Both colleges were rescued at crucial moments by dominant characters who exerted enormous personal influence for long spells at a time. John Cobham at Queen's, an idealist with a liberal Catholic outlook, was paralleled at Handsworth by William Lofthouse ("Lofty"), a self-disciplined academic who was viewed by his students with something like veneration.

And then, of course, there were the problems peculiar to England's second city, with its own university so different from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, a precursor to the merger was the drawing together of the staffs of both Queen's and Handsworth by the presence of Birmingham University's theological department, whose lectures accorded both Anglicans and Methodists complete equality of status. Before long, Queen's was declaring all its courses open to any Handsworth student who cared to attend. From there it seemed only logical to turn the two colleges into one.

The merger took place in October 1970, when John Habgood, the future Archbishop of York, was Principal of Queen's (he was to be the first Principal of the combined college). Thereafter, experimentation in the college chapel ended with the creation of the daily "Queen's Rite", and with the celebration of Anglican and Methodist eucharists on alternate Sundays. Throughout the book, the flavour of Birmingham comes through successfully - and we see the migration of Queen's to Edgbaston from its original site in the centre of the city.

Its lecturers at one time included Leslie Paul, him of the famous report on the deployment and payment of the clergy. Another staunch ally was Geoffrey Lampe, the distinguished theologian and regular Church Times book-reviewer. Even Bishop Barnes of Birmingham makes, as it were, a guest appearance. His "decidedly non-catholic views on the eucharist", we are told, "went down well" with the Methodists.

Once, Chandler says, the amalgamation of Queen's and Handsworth Colleges had looked like the harbinger of a new age. With the collapse of the Anglican-Methodist reunion scheme, "it simply stuck out like a sore thumb." That is perhaps to take too harsh a view. It is good, nevertheless, that the history of the two sides of this ecumenical equation should have been put together in so clear and concise a way. It was a story that needed to be told, and now it has been in all its fullness.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times

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