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Worker priests of south London

by
08 September 2023

Hugh Williamson describes the revolution begun by the Southwark Ordination Course 60 years ago

Keystone/Alamy

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Mervyn Stockwood, on 30 September 1963 with what the Keystone photo agency called “the new ‘Men of the World’ clergymen”, enjoying a drink across the river from St Paul’s Cathedral, having just been ordained. The 1963 caption continues: “They are all men who have studied for the priesthood at night school while still carrying on their normal jobs during the day. Yesterday fourteen of them were ordained in Southwark Cathedral, and of course, like the men of the world that they are, after the service was over they nipped around the corner to the local ‘pub’, and, of course, being a noted man of the world himself, the Bishop went too”

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Mervyn Stockwood, on 30 September 1963 with what the Keystone photo agency called “the new ‘Men of the World’ cle...

THE expansion of heavy industry, the early shoots of today’s consumer society, and the growth of an industrial working class — Britain in the decades after the Second World War was in rapid change. Social attitudes were shifting, including attitudes to the Church’s place in everyday life.

Concern was growing in parts of the Church of England that it was seen by many as too Establishment, and out of touch with working people and their communities.

One of the initiatives to respond to these concerns has its 60th anniversary this month. The Southwark Ordination Course (SOC), whose first cohort of 13 ordinands emerged in September 1963, was, at the time, based on a truly radical idea: to offer part-time training to men in secular jobs, enabling them to remain at work after their ordination. The course was one of the foundations of today’s self-supporting ministry.

Prebendary John Lees, the National Officer and the Bishop of Exeter’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry, says that the SOC was a “brave experiment”, and that the anniversary reflects many areas of achievement. But he suggests: “Part of the vision from that time has been lost by the Church. A new focus on ministry in the workplace would be inspiring.”

The course was the idea of Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark. The Church, he argued, “should get alongside those in society who [have] no inclination to go near the Church”. It was no coincidence that it was he who founded the course: he divided opinion like few others, with his often flamboyant gestures and ideas, and readiness to break with church traditions.

John Mantle, in his book Britain’s First Worker Priests, opens his section on the SOC thus: “One of [north] London’s senior clergy is reputed to have remarked that he was ‘thinking of having the Thames widened’ when he heard of the elevation of Mervyn Stockwood to the diocese of Southwark.”

 

THE men entering the priesthood in the decades after the Second World War came almost exclusively from Britain’s middle and upper classes, many from public schools and elite universities. After training at theological college, a curacy in a parish followed.

Stockwood and others involved, including the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, had a different vision: of working-class men given the chance to train for the priesthood on a course tailored to their needs, and then given the opportunity to carry out their ministry in their workplaces, as ordinary workers. Stockwood had the idea of, for instance, a eucharist among dockers, at which a docker presided.

In France, since the 1940s, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests had left their parishes and taken manual jobs, living out a mission to work alongside ordinary labourers and show a radically different face of the Church. Reports of their activities had been circulating in Britain since the early 1950s.

Here, a much smaller group of worker priests was forming, inspired in part by their French counterparts, but Anglicans. These worker priests, including coal miners and factory workers, also saw the urgent need to show, through their working lives, that the Christian faith was about more than parish priesthood and Sunday services. My father, Canon Tony Williamson, was a member of this small network, the Worker Church Group (WCG). He worked as a forklift-truck driver in a car factory in Oxford for 30 years.

Industrial missions, in which ordinands and others gained work experience and spread the gospel in industrial settings, were also gaining prominence. The mission in Sheffield’s steel plants, led by Ted Wickham, later Bishop of Middleton, was a well-known example.

Stockwood was aware of these developments, and sought their influence on his course. He separately invited my father and John Rowe, an ordained electrician in a London brewery and member of the WCG, to give talks to SOC ordinands. He asked my father to move with his family to Southwark to engage as a worker priest there (he declined).

“The clergy have to go right in with the workers by being one of them,” Stanley Evans, a Canon Residentiary of Southwark Cathedral, said, at the culmination of the first course in 1963. If that was his and Stockwood’s vision, the reality looked somewhat different.

 

WHILE the course was ground-breaking in providing opportunities for part-time study for working men, it was much less successful — in its first cohort and in later years — in attracting working-class ordinands or in training priests in manual work.

The first cohort of 13 ordinands were professional or white-collar workers, such as an electrical engineer, a headmaster, a British Railways official, a chartered surveyor, and a solicitor. Five of the group continued in their jobs, while eight became stipendiary curates in Southwark.

The Church Times, in a September 1963 article, “Part-Time Ordinands: Southwark Experiment Nearing Its Climax”, reassured readers that the course did not represent an easier path to priesthood.

“For these thirteen the course has been a severe test of vocation. They are the survivors of a total of ninety who first applied for places. Those eventually selected numbered thirty-one.” Some dropped out to join more conventional courses, others after questioning their vocation.

Mantle speculates that the academic rigours of the course may have put off students with weaker academic backgrounds.

The students had evening lectures at the Chapter House, in Southwark, and weekend sessions and summer schools at Wychcroft, the diocesan retreat cent at Bletchingley, Surrey. This structure enabled “married men to train for the ministry without separating from their families and permits a man to do his theological thinking while still following the occupation for which he trained in his younger days”, the Church Times reported.

The course was innovative in other ways. “Where else would one find a college that organises ‘weekends for wives’ when father goes back home to look after the children while mother goes to Bletchingley to meet other wives?”

 

SOC students in later years remember other ordinands like them in full-time work, but little focus on theological or more practical aspects of being a minister in secular employment. The Revd Michael Skinner, who started on the course in 1973 and went on to be a senior civil servant in the Department of Health, says: “The course didn’t focus on being a minister at work. I found it useful as it trained me to be a priest.” Since retirement 20 years ago, he has been a parish priest in Orpington, south-east London.

Fr Skinner has fond memories of one aspect of the training: “The course held some of its sessions in the lecture theatre at Guy’s Hospital; so I still associate the Old Testament with being surrounded by pathological specimens in jars around the lecture theatre walls”.

The Revd Tony Williamson, a Church of England worker priest and the author’s father, in the factory in Oxford where he was employed in the 1960s

The Revd Hugh Valentine, a priest in secular employment, joined the course in 1986. He valued the part played by the then Principal, Martin Baddeley, but otherwise found the lecturers “rather churchy; the overall approach was certainly not radical”. Nevertheless, Fr Valentine, who was an inner-city social worker at the time, appreciates the opportunity the course gave him to “experience the tension and dialogue” between theology and his secular work.

His journey every week to course sessions in Christchurch, Southwark, took him over the Hungerford footbridge. “It became an image in my mind, of the gap between the ‘Church as institution’ and the world of paid work — a gap I hoped to bridge in some small way.”

He also remembers Wychcroft, and the powerful image in the chapel of Christ the Worker, depicting Jesus as wearing a labourer’s apron, with his arms outstretched.

Stockwood retired in 1980. While the programme that he had created became a blueprint for similar courses, he remained critical of the direction that the SOC had taken. “I wish more (students) had come forward as worker priests. . . There were too many professionals and civil servants,” he told a correspondent in 1984. Members of the WCG also made clear the distinctions between their focus and that of the SOC.

The SOC’s training approach was endorsed in 1968 by a report from the Central Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry, A Supporting Ministry, by a working party chaired by Canon Paul Welsby. This encouraged the development of other part-time courses for non-stipendiary ministers.

The Revd Hugh Lee, former officer for self-supporting ministry in Oxford diocese, became aware of SOC as a model in the mid-1970s, when he was looking for an ordination course that he could combine with his work as an energy economist at the National Coal Board, and later at the International Energy Agency.

He had applied to join the SOC years earlier, after leaving Cambridge, but had been told to get some work experience and then reapply.

Living in the Oxford diocese at the time, he heard of a local course for non-stipendiary ministers (which was to become the Oxford Ministry Course), and applied. “Everyone [associated with the course] knew about the SOC and could see it was a success. For this reason, other visionary bishops, such as Kenneth Woollcombe, in Oxford, decided to set up such a course.” The Oxford course was one of the first after the SOC, he says. There are now 14 part-time non-residential courses recognised by the Church of England.

 

THE SOC itself has evolved. In 1994, it merged with the Canterbury School of Ministry to become the South East Institute of Theological Education (SEITE). In 2015, SEITE became St Augustine’s College of Theology. Soon afterwards, it relocated to Malling Abbey, in Kent.

The course maintains strong ties with Southwark, the Principal of St Augustine’s, the Revd Dr Alan Gregory, says. Some teaching takes place at Trinity House, in Southwark, and the course also uses Wychcroft for weekend studies.

Dr Gregory says that the course has “diversified beyond Mervyn Stockwood’s vision”, in pace with changes in society. Women students were accepted in 1994, and students these days are much more diverse than 60 years ago. About one fifth of the students have a UK minority-ethnic background; a number are neurodiverse; and many have had limited or difficult educational backgrounds: “Just the other day, a new student was on a site tour, and, entering the library, said he had never been in such a room before.”

There are regularly an equal share of women and men on the ordination course at St Augustine’s, and, in contrast with SOC’s early years, it has a very low drop-out rate, because ordinands have already passed through a diocesan discernment programme.

Dr Gregory sees important elements of continuity with the founding principles of SOC. “We are proud of being their grandchild,” he says.

He met Stockwood several times while a student in London. “He saw that, if you give a wide range of people the opportunity to be clergy, you bring in experiences of the Christian faith that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

He says that a core idea of the SOC was that a “centre of gravity” of the Church was in the workplace. He endeavours to keep this focus in the courses offered by St Augustine’s, although he wishes that more of the ordinands would see the workplace as central to their ministry.

“This core vision mustn’t be lost, but we — in the Church — are in danger of losing it. Allowing it to be lost would be a tragedy, but also a massive own goal.”

 

PREBENDARY Lees sees his task as preventing this own goal. He helps to oversee the National Network of SSM Officers and Advisers. Self-supporting ministers (SSMs) have become an increasingly important support for the Church, making up about 30 per cent of licensed ministers. More than half of them — about 51 per cent — are women, Prebendary Lees says, a much higher proportion than the 32 per cent of stipendiary ministers who are women.

Most SSMs are orientated to parochial work, but there is also a sizeable minority of ministers in secular employment who see their work as an important focus of their ministry. The Church needs to do more to value and support all SSMs, including the latter group, Prebendary Lees argues.

He sees signs of progress. Last November, the C of E’s Ministry Council and the National Network agreed a five-page report with “Best Practice Guidelines” for diocesan support of SSMs. The document was circulated to dioceses by the Archbishops’ Council in May.

While SSMs “make an important contribution to the life of the Church of England”, the report notes, “concerns remain about the extent to which SSMs are recognised and offered opportunities for development. . . Ordained ministers need to have confidence that their ministry is valued, regardless of whether they receive a stipend.”

Practical recommendations include steps by bishops and others to discourage “sometimes explicit assumptions that SSMs are second-class clergy”. The part played by SSMs should be recognised in diocesan communications, and in vocations materials and processes.

“Recent initiatives aimed at attracting people to stipendiary ministry have been successful,” Prebendary Lees says, “but a new phase is required to look at attracting younger SSMs from a wider range of backgrounds.”

The Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Julie Conalty, agrees that there is “still a sense of SSMs’ being invisible” and not valued as much as other ministers. “This needs to change.” The preacher for the special SOC anniversary service (accompanied by a seminar) in Southwark Cathedral tomorrow, she is herself a former SSM. After university, she worked as a homelessness and night-shelter manager, before moving into law enforcement, first as a police community support officer and later as a probation officer.

She trained for ordination on SEITE and worked for more than a decade as a minister in secular employment.

“My vocation to ordination came as a teenager, but ordination was not possible for women at that time. Later, my profession was part of my vocation, too, my work with offenders. The gospel is clear about the importance of work with the marginalised and those on the edge of society,” she says.

By bringing SSMs out of the shadows, the Church will also benefit from the skills and experience gathered by ministers in secular jobs. “We need to value these gifts,” Bishop Conalty says.

“Whether you work full time and take a few services a month, or work six days a week as a parish minister, it doesn’t change who you are. It’s your motivation to be a minister that counts.”

The SOC fell short of its early vision of new training openings for ordinands representing a broader social class, who would explore different ways of being the Church in the world. Yet its legacy offers opportunities that the Church, with courage, can grasp.

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