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A ‘unique and peculiar glory’

26 January 2024

Fifty years after its closure, Christopher Morgan celebrates the legacy of Kelham Theological College

The Great Chapel at Kelham, showing the rood figures by Charles Jagger, which are now in St John the Divine, Kennington, in London

The Great Chapel at Kelham, showing the rood figures by Charles Jagger, which are now in St John the Divine, Kennington, in London

ON MICHAELMAS Day 1973, the very last eucharist was celebrated in the great domed chapel at Kelham — in many ways, the symbolic heart both of the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) itself and of the theological college that the Society maintained.

The decision to close the college (with two or three others), because of declining numbers of ordinands in the Church of England, had been taken nearly three years earlier by the House of Bishops, but no prior warning had been given; so the news, when it came, was a painful shock — especially since the buildings and priory and college life were entirely integrated. Rousing hymns, soaring plainsong, meticulous ceremonial, and real tears were, therefore, very much part of that day.

No new ordinands had been accepted at the college after 1971, and the final cohort were due to finish their training in 1975. These students left the Red House — the Society’s retreat centre in Kelham village — in July 1974, and spent their final year in a hall of residence at Nottingham University.

Since these two significant endings took place 50 years ago, now may be an appropriate time to attempt a reflection on the footprint and legacy of “a Kelham training”. It had prepared many hundreds of young men for priesthood in the Church of England and other Provinces of the Anglican Communion over more than three-quarters of a century.

THE story began in 1891, when Herbert Kelly — an angular and visionary young priest — established the Korean Missionary Brotherhood in Kennington, south London, to train young laymen for work in the East Asian mission field. The capacity of the small Korean Church to employ such men was somewhat limited, and some of those coming to Kennington with a sense of vocation were, anyway, keen to explore the possibility of ordination.

Out of this environment of Christian community life and endeavour, the Society of the Sacred Mission was born in 1894. The growing community moved briefly to Mildenhall, in Suffolk, and then to Kelham Hall, on the banks of the River Trent, just east of Newark, in Nottinghamshire, in 1903.

Brother Gilbert SSMA BBC film crew visits the refectory at Kelham in 1960

Once there, the household of nearly 50 members of the young SSM and associated students grew, by 1914, to more than 80. After the First World War, new men joined; extensions to the west of Sir Gilbert Scott’s mansion were built, and the Great Chapel was consecrated in November 1928. By then, a religious community — comprising professed members of the Society, and a cohort of ordinands living alongside them — numbered more than 120.

Fr Kelly (“HK”, or “the Old Man” as he was later affectionately called) resigned as Director of the Society in 1910, but remained a significant presence for both SSM and its college until his death in 1950.

SOME principles in community life and aspiration had clearly emerged at Kelham, and would be developed in subsequent years. HK and his successors were especially keen that young men of working-class background, without much access to education, should be valued and encouraged to offer themselves for what he termed “the divine service”. To this end, a rigorous programme of training was devised, lasting four or five years. It was to be delivered by suitably qualified members of the Society.

That ordinands should live alongside brethren in a framework of shared prayer, community life, mutual responsibility, and Christian discipline was viewed as a crucial environment for the development of priestly character and self-giving service. Although educational opportunities for all broadened considerably as the 20th century unfolded, the particular Kelham “model” persisted and grew as a robust option for theological education, ordination training, and personal formation.

In a way that would simply not be possible today, the House of the Sacred Mission provided an entire environment for all who lived there. Both work and recreation were shared and obligatory.

Ordinands — known as Associates — found themselves working alongside professed brethren in such tasks as washing windows, cleaning lavatories, polishing floors, preparing meals and clearing up afterwards, and maintaining the extensive garden and grounds. There was weekly football in the two winter terms, and cricket or tennis in the summer.

Worship in the resonant chapel was, of course, central to the life of the House. Alongside the fourfold daily office, the main holy days were fully observed, and the Sunday eucharist was celebrated with a happy mix of solemnity and matter-of-factness. Greater Silence was observed daily between compline and the end of breakfast. Laughter, leg-pulling, and arguments were also, of course, very much part of the daily rhythm.

FR KELLY and Wardens of the college after him were eager to encourage ordinands to think for themselves. For instance, philosophy and logic were key features of first-year study; the entire narrative of church history was taught; and unfolding biblical inquiry was sustained over four years.

Although clearly rooted in the Catholic tradition, Kelham’s was a hospitable Catholicism that was at home with questions. HK had been a familiar figure at events of the Student Christian Movement in the 1920s and ’30s, and Kelham students then and thereafter were often to be found at SCM summer camps and conferences. Ecumenical and international visitors were frequently welcomed at the House.

Chores with a feathered flock at Kelham

As part of this same picture, the growth of SSM saw the foundation of provinces in South Africa, Australia, and (briefly) Japan. Members of the Society — and ordinands, too — were drawn from all these countries, as well as from Canada, the United States, and Ghana; so Kelham horizons always tended to be broad.

Today — half a century after bidding farewell to an awesome chapel, and the closure of the theological-college doors — it is good to be reminded that towers and temples do inevitably fall to dust, even as God’s creative purposes continue. During their span of life, these structures can, indeed, serve a useful and even a glorious purpose.

I am certain that I am just one of very many people who are profoundly thankful to have been touched by Kelham’s unique and peculiar glory.

The Rt Revd Christopher Morgan was a theological student at Kelham from 1966 to 1970. He was Area Bishop of Colchester in Chelmsford diocese from 2001 to 2013.

Three members of SSM are currently living in retirement in England, and a member of the Australian province is a doctoral student in Scotland. The Society archive and a significant part of the Kelham library are now housed at St Antony’s Priory, Durham — a house of the Society, now functioning as a Christian spirituality centre.

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