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Tapping a C of E barometer

06 December 2013

Nigel Peyton follows a half-century of life in a theological college


Nottingham folk: a 1977 cartoon,Robin Hood and his Merry Men, of the then St John's College staff, including (fourth from left) a highly re­­spected prin­cipal, Robin Nixon, who died unexpect­edly, aged only 46, in 1978. His vice-principal and successor, the author of the book re­­viewed below (in which the cartoon ap­­pears), is fifth from left

Nottingham folk: a 1977 cartoon,Robin Hood and his Merry Men, of the then St John's College staff, including (fourth from left) a highly re­­spected...

St John's College Nottingham: From Northwood to Nottingham, The story of 50 years 1963-2013
Colin Buchanan
St John's College £14.99, available from www.stjohns-nottm.ac.uk

WHAT is a theological college for? An answer weaves intermittently through this very detailed chronicle of St John's College, from its exodus from London to Nottingham in 1963 up to the present day.

Brief chapters keep readers moving, firstly through the eras of college principals, followed by topical accounts of college life, including curriculum and training patterns, chapel and worship, the advent of women students, the expansion of extension studies and pastoral placements, and national and international rela-tions. The book includes photographs, numerous appendices, and indexes.

This insider's tale will stir the memories of the many Johnians around the world. Engaging anecdotes, moving stories, and happenstances abound with occasional prickly comments and the odd suggestion that everyone remembers where he or she was when the appointment of George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury was announced. Ambitious detail increases the possibility of factual errors: I spotted a handful.

Greater critical distance might have provided sharper insights into some issues: for example, the persistently asymmetric relationship between the independent, confessional St John's College, the liberal East Midlands Ministry Training Course, and the academic Department of Theology at Nottingham University - and the consequences for regional training partnership; also, whether principals appointed from within the college or from elsewhere were more successful. The appreciation of the episcopal style of Christina Baxter's long tenure as principal and as General Synod activist is somewhat unquestioning.

Nevertheless, this is a readable contribution to the history of theological and ministerial training. In the closing pages, the author explicitly asks "what is the raison d'être of a free-standing, voluntary Christian agency with a strapline of 'Creative Christian Learning'?" The chapter on the Charismatic movement perhaps gets closest to defining the distinctive character of Johnian formation, where the author argues for "a soft-edged inclusive set of priorities . . . our evangelical, charismatic and Anglican commitments".

If the history of St John's is a vocational barometer of an Evangelical resurgence and penetration of the General Synod and senior leadership of the Church of England, then evidently the college has remained adept at adjusting its staff, buildings, and course offerings to the changing needs of potential students and the requirements of Church of England and academic accreditation.

As a modern Catholic, I much valued my association with college staff and students throughout my ministry in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham, and this book reminds me why.

Dr Nigel Peyton was Archdeacon of Newark and is now Bishop of Brechin in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

This title is available from the college website: www.stjohns-nottm.ac.uk.

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