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Godly Communities of Sound Learning, by Trevor Park

15 February 2019

Dissatisfaction with the clergy led to action, says Serenhedd James

THERE was a time when all one needed to be ordained was to be a MA of either Oxford or Cambridge, and to find a periwigged bishop willing to extend the imposition of his ancient and liver-spotted hands.

It was a far-from-perfect model; but not all the men ordained under those conditions were the idiot sons of the landed families. Some, at least, proved themselves sane and diligent pastors; and Fergus Butler-Gallie got a book out the rest (Books for Christmas, 30 November 2018).

Trevor Park’s heavily titled work — a recasting of his doctoral thesis — does exactly what it says on the tin. Theological formation of the clergy was a concern of the Oxford Movement’s adherents, of course; but they were not its only progenitors: a developing dissatisfaction with the quality of the clergy transcended party lines. Park presents us with ten institutions, founded in the first half of the 19th century, which make such venerable survivors as St Stephen’s House (1876) and the College of the Resurrection (1903) look like new bugs.

St David’s College, Lampeter (before 1938)

Most of Park’s institutions have now passed from the scene. Chichester, Wells, Lampeter, and King’s College, London, in its clerical phase, no doubt still hold wistful memories for some readers; but I dare say few will know much about some of the others, which is a pity. The Church Missionary Institution at Islington, and St Augustine’s College, Canterbury, for example, sent generations of men into the furthest corners of the British Empire. While their legacy may discomfit some modern sensibilities, it hardly deserves to be forgotten.

Park’s work is painstakingly researched and thoroughly referenced; and, although it is not a light read, it represents a valuable stirring of the memory — and a bulwark against contemporary complacency. The theological colleges did not appear out of mid-air: they arose out of a realisation that effective ordained ministry needed to be rooted in prayer, study, and self-discipline. The odd indiscretion aside, those that survive remain the jewel in the crown of ministerial training.

Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

Godly Communities of Sound Learning: A study of how ten new colleges were founded to provide professional training for clergy of the Church of England, 1800-1850
Trevor Park
St Bega Publications £15
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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