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Theological college for older people

21 June 2024

Theological education is not just for the young. Sarah Lothian explores some options

St Hild Caleb ordinands pictured with the Archbishop of York

St Hild Caleb ordinands pictured with the Archbishop of York

WHEN the next academic year begins in theological colleges this autumn, some of the new students will be bringing a lifetime of experience inside and outside the Church to their theological studies.

As such, mature students — particularly the over-65s — are a much valued cohort, theological institutions say.

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, currently has eight students in that category; their oldest is 73. Most opt for part-time study, and are generally interested in more introductory qualifications, a spokesperson said.

At Sarum College, in Salisbury, student ages range from their twenties to their seventies. The college has a commitment to lifelong learning and to a broad offer of theological learning, the director of marketing and communications, Ms Christine Nielsen-Craig, said.

Alongside ordained and lay ministry, Sarum College offers short courses, a two-year spiritual-direction course, and postgraduate study programmes in theology and spirituality.

The benefits are two-way. “We know from the research on this that those who keep learning tend to be healthier and more socially engaged,” Ms Nielsen-Craig said.

“Offering a wide range of ways and levels to engage with theological learning has been central to Sarum’s mission since the transformation from Salisbury and Wells Theological College to Sarum College in 1995.”

St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff, has 13 over-65s on its Theology for Life degree course.

St Hild College was formed by the merger of the Yorkshire Ministry Course and St Barnabas Theological Centre in 2017, and has centres in Sheffield, Mirfield, and Lincoln. St Hild’s trains ordinands and candidates for licensed lay ministry in the Church of England, and Baptists for Baptist ministry. It offers courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and short courses, and has a centre for church-planting.

Canon Sarah Lawrence, head of the Lincoln Centre, said: “We often have people studying to become Readers in retirement, and also training for ordination.

“We find that people bring a lot into ministry from their previous careers, and when they retire look for ways to contribute more in their local churches. Sometimes, people had a sense of calling much earlier in life, and return to it after they retire and their children have grown up.”


CAROL RASHID, 66, is studying for a Dip.HE Theological Education, Training and Formation at St Hild College.

Ms Rashid first visited her local church when she went to her mother’s funeral. She was 38, and, at the time, owned and ran a nursing home for the elderly in Rotherham, Yorkshire. Shortly afterwards, she was given a Bible as a gift, and embarked on what she describes as a “wonderful journey of faith”.

“I felt called to ministry many years ago, and I took several different learning pathways. First, I became a pastoral worker, and did the training for that. Then I became a licensed lay Reader in 2017, and that was my role within the Church up until being recommended for ordination training, in 2022.

Patricia CarswellA view of the library at Trinity College, Bristol

“Because of my background, I was only required to do two years of theological training, and I embraced it totally. I opted for daytime studying rather than the evening, because it was more manageable.

“At Sheffield, there’s a lot of diversity, including Baptist ministers in training and independent learners. Everyone seemed quite young, and, at first, I was slightly concerned because I hadn’t written any essays since training. But it was an excellent experience. It was challenging, and everything I’ve learned has nourished me.

“Because of my maturity, I was able to contribute to the group and class discussions on a different level altogether. I’ve worked in a prison chaplaincy, and in a Macmillan information and support role that was linked with a hospice. So that was received as valuable. I wouldn’t say I’m as academic as many of the younger people there. I didn’t take the Greek module, for example.

“The college was very accommodating, and the pathways were flexible. I can’t see anything negative, age-wise. Naturally, you have to be aware of pacing yourself, and your own levels of fatigue, but I am a young 66-year-old.

“Sometimes, it was hard to retain a lot of information, but, because I’m a great journaller, that supported me in that weakness of my learning. But I achieved the grades I needed, and am now ready to start the next stage of my journey at St John’s, Goole, which will be my training church.”


MANY colleges, including St Hild, offer the Caleb Stream, which is a new one-year Anglican selection and training pathway for ordained ministry, designed specifically for people with experience of leadership.

Pauline Wiggett, 70, had spent most of her life in lay ministry before it was recommended that she enrol on a one-year Caleb course at St Mellitus, in 2022. She is now studying on the ministerial pathway at St Hild.

“I was a local preacher in the Methodist Church in my twenties,” she says, “then went to All Nations Christian College to train for cross-cultural ministry overseas, and then spent 16 years in West Africa.”

When she returned to the UK, Mrs Wiggett worked in voluntary leadership positions in the Church, mostly in para-church organisations.

“About three years ago, I felt God was calling me back into the Church. I was 69 when I started the Caleb course, and it was fascinating: the last time I had studied theology was in the early ’80s, and, although I had been reading quite widely, it brought that up to date, with more current contemporary theological thinking.

“It was wonderful at St Mellitus to be surrounded by a lot of younger, very enthusiastic people with very questioning minds. The teaching at St Mellitus was very challenging. Lots of questions, lots of wide reading, which I found quite interesting.”

One distinctive aspect of the Caleb Stream was that none of the written work, or the pieces of work produced, was marked, Mrs Wiggett said. “It was more an exercise in exploring ideas, which I found quite helpful. You had a chance to explore an idea without fear of getting it wrong. Or actually just finding your way in it.

“For older people, allowing us to actually be more creative, and think more inventively could be seen as counter-intuitive, because, you think, the older you get, the more you might want to stay safe with what you already know. That certainly wasn’t my experience. I really enjoyed being able to just explore ideas without fear or favour.”

The point of the Caleb year “was for me to then be ordained as a Caleb, as, through the Caleb pathway, you’re discerning at the same time as studying”, Mrs Wiggett says. “At stage two, they decided not to recommend me for ordination. Initially, I felt a bit silly . . . but I then went on to change tack and train as a Reader.”

At the recommendation of Lincoln diocese, Mrs Wiggett continued her studies at St Hild, Lincoln. She began her time there with the opportunity to study for an MA in theology and ministry, but decided that the more academic approach was not for her. She will be licensed as a Reader this October.

“The diocese, very graciously, allowed me to concentrate on the ministerial pathway, which has been very helpful. For example, exploring the practicalities of disability and the Church, doing ministry well while caring for oneself, and considering how to make church a place where everyone can feel welcome and safe.”


TRINITY COLLEGE, Bristol, offers full and part-time theological study for ordinands and independent students, ranging from a 60-credit Foundation Award all the way to a Ph.D., underpinned by comprehensive learning support and several scholarships.

Trinity currently has three over-65s studying for the part-time Certificate in Theology, Ministry and Mission on the evening course. One of those, studying at foundation level, is Robert Nicholas, who is 67.

Mr Nicholas is continuing his studies after being licensed as a lay minister at Holy Trinity, Shaw, West Swindon, last October. He worked in sports-ground maintenance before retraining as a nurse.

“Beside fulfilling the criteria of being licensed, I wanted something that was going to improve me as a lay minister, in both ministry and preaching; and the course I’m on does just that,” he said.

“The beauty of doing the two-year foundation is that I can be quite selective in the modules I choose. I’ve completed church history, which was fascinating. The essay topic I did was how the Early Church responded to Marcion and other heretics, and that led me down a path of how they came to arrive at the Apostles’ Creed, from Nicaea. There’s a succession from AD 1 right up to now, and church history is still continuing to be made.”

An essay on Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth “opened my eyes”, he said. “I have got a childlike faith, and I was a bit frightened of theology, in case it would destroy it; but it’s actually embossed and enhanced it, and my faith has grown with theology.”

Mr Nicholas is also studying spirituality, ministry and mission, and theology and the environment.

“I look forward to going as much for the fellowship as for the tuition. On Tuesday evenings, we usually have a short service in the chapel prior to the lecture. The cohort has bonded together extraordinarily well: there’s people from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and yet we’ve just really clicked, and that has been a real positive benefit.

“I’ll probably carry on after the foundation. I like learning, and everyone is so welcoming, helpful, and accepting. I’d recommend it to anyone.”


THE Revd Dr Sarah Brush is the director of Cuddesdon Gloucester and Hereford (CGH), and said that the college’s current oldest student was 71, studying on the Introduction to Christian Ministry course.

“At CGH, we endeavour to engender a culture of lifelong learning, and having students from all stages of life really helps to emphasise the importance of remaining teachable at all stages of our vocation,” Dr Brush said.

Jan de Haldevang, who is 64, is studying on the Reader and Ordination pathway after a military career. This included 18 years in the Scots Guards and five years in the Sultan of Oman’s Special Force. He then worked in a series of defence, security-business development, and sales jobs in the Middle East, Africa, and the UK.

Patricia CarswellTrinity College, Bristol

Throughout his life, he felt called to ministry. “My response to those increasingly strong calls and nudges was ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’”

But the calls became stronger. “Three years ago, the conversation started with my incumbent, and that took me initially on a Reader path. But, after a conversation with our suffragan bishop, followed by a local discernment panel, I have been blessed to join the ordinands, and will be ordained deacon in 2025, having finished a three-year course.”

Mr Haldevang did not go to university, so this has been his first encounter with formal study. “My style of writing was entirely that of a military education. So, action points, bullet points: a style that left little room for the journey and thought process, unless it resulted in a decision.

“I have learned to organise my writing as a balanced conversation, referencing arguments and coming up with a view that is based on informed opinion, but is not absolutely the right or only way, and there’s certainly not always an action as the conclusion. In that sense, I’ve had to change completely.

“As for study, when I started, in true military style, if I didn’t know something, then I felt initially thoroughly inadequate, ill-prepared, and therefore ill-advised to go further — because that’s how the military works. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.

“Now, I love the sense of not knowing, because that challenges study: further thought, further prayer, further investigation. I am loving that aspect, the exegesis, the elements of understanding the Bible’s Gospels better.

“I have been taught by some amazing people in the past, but they have been put in the shade by the tutors at CGH, who are incredible in the way that they guide us in spiritual formation, while developing academic understanding.”


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