A STEEP rise in younger female ordinanation candidates at Trinity Theological College, Bristol, has had an unexpected consequence: a thriving women’s rugby side.
The team was established three years ago by the Vice-Principal of Trinity, the Revd Dr Howard Worsley — a former PE teacher and chaplain of Nottingham Rugby Club — after he says he was mobbed by a group of enthusiastic new students looking to start a hobby. He is now the head coach of Trinity Wolves Rugby Team, a 15-a-side squad.
“I thought it was a joke, at first,” Dr Worsley says. “I had been lecturing on mission during Freshers’ Week. I was saying that, when you are ordained, you need to keep a life; keep doing normal things and talking to normal people so that you don’t get so cluttered up with church matters.”
Dr Worsley, who is now 57, told students about his experience playing semi-professional rugby for Nottingham Casuals when he was the Vicar of St Peter’s, Radford, in the 1990s. He would make a commitment to Saturday games a year in advance; so he could rarely agree to afternoon weddings, he says. The odd black eye or limp would raise eyebrows on a Sunday.
“The new first-year students were excited by this idea of mission, and came up with the idea of starting a women’s rugby team.”
The women started training as a seven-a-side squad on the college lawn. Now, thanks to its popularity among theological students, a 15-a-side team competes in the university leagues. Early last month, Trinity Wolves celebrated a victory over the University of the West of England.
“Time in a theological college is a precious thing that is not always available,” Dr Worsley says. “It is only recently that we have been playing proper teams. I don’t think that this has ever happened before in the history of the Church.”
Today, the squad has more than 20 players, most of whom are ordinands, augmented by a few wives of ordinands and independent students. They train on Wednesday lunchtimes on playing fields owned by the University of Bristol. One of the women, who is now ordained, went on to play for Wolverhampton Ladies Rugby Team.
“The women have developed a strong collegiality,” Dr Worsley says. “I had never coached women before, and so I was a bit nervous about health and safety; but they were competitive and aggressive.”
The number eight and top try-scorer for Trinity Wolves, Thea Smith, enrolled in the college in 2016. “When I joined, there was no specific women’s sport, just a men’s football team,” she says. “From a very jokey conversation round the lunch table with Howard, a week later, seven girls met to throw a ball around on the front lawn; now, three years later, we field a full 15 with subs.
“Training at Trinity is holistic: it is about worshipping and encountering God in mind, body, and spirit. Learning to play rugby has given yet greater depth to our community life, encouraged women to engage in sport where they’ve not previously had the opportunity, and just been such good fun — with so much laughing.
“I am so proud to have been a part of this project, empowering women in sport. My heart is full.”
Mission and sport, or other interests outside church, should be intertwined, Dr Worsley says. “The Church can end up pulling you into directions where your horizons are limited. The Kingdom of God is not like that.
“Now, the women see rugby as part of the mission life of the Church. It is another way of speaking to people without your vicar’s collar being the first thing that people talk about.”
One of the coaches of Trinity Wolves, Heulwen Evans, a student at Trinity who used to represent Wales in the junior women’s side, agrees. “This is a great opportunity for mission, especially the idea that ministry is not confined within church walls, but can also be found on the rugby pitch.”
The other coaches are Aidan Watson, a theological student who is training for a rugby-coaching certificate, and the college site-manager, Malcolm Bourn. Equipment, kit, and coaching were funded by a £500 grant from the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth.
Dr Cocksworth said last week: “I was really pleased to support it because it was a new development in an old story: Christians involved in sport for the love of it. Sure, there are all sorts of benefits for the gospel, like increasing Christian credibility, opening up opportunities to witness in all sorts of ways, developing team work and virtues of endurance and fair play.
“But sport is also great fun, and to be enjoyed for its own sake as one of the gifts that God has given to us to celebrate the joy of human life — bodily life, animated by spirit and mind, played out together.”
The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, says that it has been “a joy” to watch Trinity Wolves develop over three years. “They are a wonderful, gifted, and strong group of women, and it’s great to see them training physically as well as intellectually and spiritually.
“It’s also fantastic because it represents the growing numbers of young, female ordinands, many of them from Evangelical churches, offering themselves for ministry in the Church. We’re so proud of them.”
Last year, Trinity reported its highest-ever intake over the past two years: more than 100 ordinands, training across all three pathways, including a steep rise in younger candidates, especially younger women (News, 23 February 2018).
Dr Worsley concludes: “Theological colleges are having to compete for younger folk, and this [rugby team] seems to be an attractive thing — though it wasn’t set up for that.
“I am sold on the value of it. It helped me to love the Church, because the Church doesn’t dominate every factor of my life.
“I will defend that as a theologian: that God wants us to be happy, and serving him does not mean that we have to be ‘religious’ all the time, but have that balance.”