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Angela Tilby: Heythrop’s closure leaves a gap

28 September 2018


The University of London’s Senate House

The University of London’s Senate House

THE closure of Heythrop College at the end of the last academic year has left a gap in the provision of adult Christian education that will not easily be filled. When I was Continuing Ministerial Develoment Adviser in Oxford, I used to write references for serving clergy attracted by Heythrop’s academic excellence and London location to study spirituality, liturgy, or philosophy at Master’s level. I was always delighted to do so, because I knew that they would benefit from the college’s lively and hospitable atmosphere, and the breadth of its teaching.

I was personally involved with the college during the 1990s (when it was in Cavendish Square, London) as an adviser and contributor to the spirituality journals The Way and The Way Supplement. I even lectured there once or twice, on the Anglican tradition.

It was a unique institution: run by the British Jesuits, and at the same time a full constituent college of the University of London, with complete academic freedom, it offered courses in theology and philosophy to both clergy and lay people. It was unapologetically Catholic, and openly ecumenical. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, is an alumnus. Roman Catholic ordinands could train under its banner, adding vocational elements to their degree courses.

Sadly, Heythrop was the victim of the commodification of higher education. As colleges and universities rushed to increase their numbers, there was no longer a place for a college that specialised in theology. Once the undergraduate programme was under threat, there was little hope that the rest could be saved. The Jesuits decided to pull out and concentrate their efforts on St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, in north Wales, and at Loyola Hall, Merseyside, leaving Campion Hall, Oxford, as their academic outpost.

There were various attempts to rescue Heythrop: first, by a merger with St Mary’s University, Twickenham; then, when that fell through, by a merger with Roehampton University. But RC church politics came into play at this point, and the priority for the hierarchy became rescuing the programmes of priestly formation, which had previously been a relatively small part of Heythrop’s raison d’être.

The loss is great. The cause of ecumenism is set back by losing this shared academic enterprise. The University of London has lost a unique institution, with a matchless library of 250,000 volumes. And, while the Jesuits retain two centres of spiritual renewal and pastoral care, they have less interaction with the academic mainstream. Their tradition has always valued the integration of serious philosophical study with spiritual development.

It is one more grievous step towards the marginalisation of theology from the university and the loss of Christian witness in academia.

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