NOW that the Rt Revd Justin Welby has been chosen to succeed him
as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams can pack away his
mitre, close the door on Lambeth Palace, and step down after nearly
ten years of responsibility for the Church of England and the
worldwide Anglican Communion.
On 17 January, the former Archbishop will be inaugurated as the
Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He will mix mainly with
college dons rather than religious leaders, and his flock will be
whittled down from a nominal 80 million to about 300.
The words "Cambridge University" conjure up for many images
cobbled streets, cycling students, and spindly Gothic spires; for
others, it means stuffy old academics with brooding stares,
excessive ear-hair, and a tendency to petty squabbling. Yet others
will think of Old Etonians (oops, sorry, Bishop Welby) lounging in
their gowns on immaculate lawns, reciting Shakespearean sonnets to
Magdalene College was, for many years, the epitome of this
Cambridge élitist stereotype. It was, notoriously, the last college
in the university to admit female students, finally relenting in
1989. Legend has it that male students walked around wearing black
armbands in silent protest, and that the college flag was lowered
I SPOKE to the outgoing Master of the college, Duncan Robinson.
He explained that, before the admission of women, the stereotypical
Magdalene student was indeed a wealthy public schoolboy who had
chosen Magdalene for its reputation as one of the least academic
colleges in Cambridge. It was the ultimate finishing school for
privileged males, or, rather, a massive boys' club.
This reputation has stuck stubbornly to the college, and,
understandably, many outside the university do not have the
evidence or experience to believe otherwise. But as a female,
ex-state-school student, in my final year at Magdalene, I can
certify that the majority of stereotypes attached to my college are
Magdalene is a friendly college, one of the smaller ones of the
University. Its corridors have been graced by such notables as
Samuel Pepys, C. S. Lewis, the present Duke of Gloucester, and
Simon Ambrose, winner of series three of The
Founded as a monastery in 1428, it was the first college to be
built on the other side of the river, to stop the monks from being
tempted by the indulgences of the town. A bridge has been built
since then, and the college now opens its doors to students from
all backgrounds and faiths.
It is famous for its biennial white-tie Summer Ball. This may
sound grander than it is: really just an excuse to dress up and eat
an inordinate amount of food.
THE college may have been established in the 15th century, but
its views and values now are far from medieval. The new Master will
be representing a college that, last year, took 57.4 per cent of
its intake from state schools, compared with the Cambridge average
of 43.5 per cent; and whose access committee is committed to making
sure "every applicant gets a fair chance."
And, no, "Master" in this context does not mean the same as a
lightsaber-wielding "Jedi master", as seen in the Star
Wars films. The Master of Magdalene is the person who
represents the college, and is responsible for its overall running.
This includes chairing the college-council and governing-body
meetings. His executive powers of office are limited, however (this
aspect of the job might seem familiar to Dr Williams).
In addition, and most importantly, he has his own special seat
at the centre of the high table at Magdalene's candlelit formal
dinners (the cheapest in the university, at £5.10 for three
courses). It is an impressive area, elevated above us lowly
students at the end of the grand hall, and generally reserved for
dons and special guests. They have the privilege of better food and
From speaking to friends at other colleges, I gather that
Masters can decide for themselves what sort of contact they will
have with undergraduates. Each is unique in his or her level of
pastoral care and one-to-one contact.
For example, the previous Master of Magdalene used to invite all
the freshers to his house for lunch once a year. On the other hand,
a friend from a different college said that he had barely spoken to
the Master during his three years at Cambridge, despite a supposed
It is clear that, technically, a Master has no obligation to
form close bonds with the student community. It is the same for the
college dons - none of whom I have ever met, or would recognise in
the street. Dr Williams will have to decide on his own personal
manner and identity as Master.
I HAVE no doubt that Dr Williams will settle into life at
Magdalene. He is, after all, familiar with both the academic life
of Cambridge and of being in a position of leadership. But I will
be interested to see whether, and how, students' attitudes to the
Christian faith change during his time at the college.
The new Master might not have to tackle tough issues such as
women bishops or gay marriage, but he will be brought face to face
with a variety of new challenges, including the growing number of
young people and students who do not attend church and see it as
irrelevant and boring. Last week, an anxious third-year
undergraduate asked me: "If our new Master is the ex-Archbishop of
Canterbury, will he cancel the bop?" This is the twice-termly
college party: clearly, there are misconceptions he will need to
I imagine that Dr Williams will enjoy being in a position of
authority which does not bring with it daily and incessant
criticism. You never know - perhaps having a former archbishop as a
Master could revive chapel attendance, if only because some will be
curious to see a person who has been in the public eye for so long.
Maybe he will help this diverse group of 300 students to start
thinking about faith for the first time.
I hope he can solidify his position by being a Master who
engages with the student community; who comes down to our level;
and who grapples with the problems that young graduates face today;
or even just be a Master who knows the names and faces of the
undergraduate community, and keeps his door open to overworked and
Maybe - and this I hope, more than anything - he will show us
his best dance-moves at the first college bop of 2013.
Joy Starkey is studying fine art at Magdalene College,