In February the Church of England decided that it was a good idea for me to train for ordained ministry (please pray for the Church of England). Since that time, my wife and I have been busy visiting theological colleges up and down the country, to try to figure out where it would be best for me to study and for us to live. I’ll announce the winner below (please pray for that college), but, as a good mathematician, I thought it would be worth showing some of my working.
Some preliminary remarks brought to you by the letter P and the number 3…
First, my comments below are all positive. I won’t have a bad word to say about any of the colleges. This is mostly because I was very impressed by all of them. They have different approaches, of course, but they are extremely good at doing what they do.
Second, my comments are personal. I hope my observations are reasonably accurate (at the time of writing), but my choice has been influenced in all sorts of ways by my own character and circumstances, and by my own convictions about the Christian faith, the Church of England, and the kind of ministry for which I am seeking to be trained. So, without being too postmodern about it, the right college for me might not be the right college for you.
Third, the list of colleges is partial. I restricted myself to considering the broadly evangelical colleges offering full-time college-based training (‘residential training’). There are (currently) five of those, of which we visited all except one: Trinity College (Bristol). The South West is a long way from our families and from the parts of the country we’ve lived in so far, and we didn’t sense any kind of ‘pull’ in that direction. Anyway, four visits to opposite ends of the country seemed like plenty!
So, in order of visiting, and brought to you by the letter C and the number 3…
Cranmer Hall (Durham)
Durham is a beautiful city. It’s also a small city, and considerably cheaper than the South, so most ordinands can live within easy walking distance of the college. Cranmer Hall occupies around a quarter of St John’s College, which is a predominantly undergraduate college of Durham University, and is situated in the heart of the city, very close to Durham Cathedral. As such, it feels very well integrated into the university. Given the old buildings it occupies, the college certainly has a ‘cosy’ feel to it. However, it does back onto the river (via some gardens and a steep bank), so it’s easy to get some fresh air. The college also has close links with the university’s (excellent) theology department. This is partly geographical (they are just a stone’s throw apart), but also reflects a strong long-term relationship.
There are just over 100 students, of whom around 70 are Anglican ordinands (and around 50/50 male/female), most of the rest being nonconformists of various flavours. As with all of the colleges, they make considerable efforts to open their doors to the students’ spouses and families. Being the only college for miles around, it attracts ordinands from a very wide range of churchmanship, although it does have an evangelical core (largely charismatic, with some conservative and open evangelicals too). The college’s breadth provides an excellent opportunity to learn to relate well to people from other traditions.
All of the colleges place great emphasis on formation, and seek to integrate worship and discipleship into the life of the college. Central to this is the daily rhythm of prayer and worship in the chapel. Cranmer Hall’s chapel is an ancient little church building just opposite the college, which is a great asset. There are services in chapel morning and evening Monday-Friday, which take various forms, and seem to be both joyful and prayerful. I get the impression that the teaching on liturgy at Cranmer is particularly good, and this combines with the wide range of traditions represented in the student body to make chapel services particularly rich and varied.
All of the colleges offer courses covering the subjects you would expect: biblical studies (and languages), doctrine, church history, homiletics, mission, leadership, pastoral skills, ministry, etc.
Durham is the home of the Church of England’s ‘Common Awards’, which is a recent innovation whereby most ordinands in most colleges up and down the country take the same degrees, which are awarded by Durham University. This provides consistency, while still allowing considerable flexibility for colleges to offer their own choice of modules. Most ordinands at Cranmer follow this pathway.
In common with Wycliffe and Ridley, for those of a more academic inclination and who are studying for three years, there is the possibility of spending the first two years taking courses in the university theology department (known as the ‘Department Degree’ in Durham parlance). But typically only one or two students take this option each year.
The colleges all have extensive placement schemes, both during term, and also ‘block’ placements outside of term. This is one of Cranmer’s strong points, because there is an enormous range of social contexts within just a short distance of Durham.
Oak Hill College (London)
Oak Hill’s outstanding facilities are situated in exceptionally spacious and beautiful grounds in a pleasant residential area on the edge of north London. There is a lot of accommodation on site, and it’s an excellent environment for young families in particular. This gives the college a safe and self-contained feel to it.
There are 150 or so students (full-time equivalent), around a third of whom are ordinands, another third independent, and the remaining third might well be from Anglican churches, but are not training as ordinands. Most students seem to be from a conservative evangelical background, from a range of denominations, so the mix of students provides excellent preparation for working together in cross-denominational conservative evangelical ‘gospel partnerships’, for example. I haven’t investigated thoroughly, but it seems that many or most of the faculty are not Anglicans, and there is a strong emphasis on agreement about the essentials of the gospel, combined with a willingness to disagree (robustly, but charitably) about secondary issues.
Daily chapel services (either morning or evening) form an important part of life at Oak Hill. These are split between Anglican and ‘free’ liturgical forms, and always include some kind of preaching or biblical meditation.
Oak Hill is almost universally considered by conservative evangelicals to be the obvious choice, if not the only college worth considering. This is not without justification. If you are looking for a solid, consistent grounding in the Bible from a conservative evangelical perspective, then you need look no further. The curriculum seeks to integrate the disciplines around the Bible, and there are strong emphases on the biblical languages (for those who want to major in this area), on doctrine, and on communicating the gospel in a compelling way to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Anglican students would expect to emerge with a solid grasp of the Bible and a well-developed systematic theology, along with strong convictions about why they are Anglicans, which would typically take the form of a principled commitment to the doctrine enshrined in the Thirty-Nine Articles. There is also a strong emphasis on growing a Christ-like character, to make it possible to hold firmly to these convictions with a charitable and generous Spirit.
Term-time placements are seen as an essential opportunity to gain experience of parish ministry, whether in a familiar or an unfamiliar tradition. Considerable care is taken to place each student in the most suitable church, which may require travelling some distance each Sunday.
Ridley Hall (Cambridge)
Cambridge is an exceptionally beautiful city, the centre of which is dominated by its remarkable university. As a consequence, there is a huge amount going on, and it’s an extremely stimulating city to live in.
Ridley Hall is situated just outside the centre, but near to many of the university colleges and departments. While not formally part of Cambridge University, it maintains excellent links with the university, with access to facilities, and with some courses being awarded by the university (see below). It’s a bibliophile’s paradise: within a few minutes walk you can find yourself in the University Library, the Faculty of Divinity, or Tyndale House. The college grounds are lovely, and the atmosphere is cosy without being cramped.
Cycling is very popular in Cambridge, and lots of students cycle in each day. Cambridge is an expensive and growing city, so not many students end up living very close to the college. But they generally end up within cycling distance, whether that is within the city or in one of the surrounding villages.
Most of the (100 or so) students in the college are Anglican ordinands, and most come from some kind of evangelical background (with a small number of more sacramentally-inclined students). However, there are opportunities to interact with students from other traditions through the courses (see below). As with the other colleges, spouses and children are made very welcome.
And they seem quite keen on croquet!
There are chapel services every day, which are normally in a broadly charismatic evangelical Anglican style. But there are opportunities to experience (radically) different styles of worship through the joint services of the Cambridge Theological Federation (see below).
As with Durham and Oxford, the most popular course is the Common Awards programme, accredited by Durham University, but a good few students spend the first two of their three years in the Faculty of Divinity, studying for the Cambridge University BA in Theology (the ‘Tripos’). There is also a via media: a fairly intensive but vocational two-year Cambridge University BTh in Theology for Ministry, which is taken by a significant number of students, and which could be followed by a one-year masters or diploma, for those studying for three years. Some of the BTh courses are taken with the Tripos students (i.e., ordinary undergraduates studying theology in Cambridge), while others are taught through the Cambridge Theological Federation, to which our attention is now turned.
Various theological colleges in Cambridge work together to provide common teaching for ordinands (or equivalent) via the Cambridge Theological Federation. The other colleges involved are Anglican (Westcott House), Methodist, URC, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, although it’s only the Anglican colleges that now have significant numbers of undergraduate students. Students come together for most of their teaching, but remain attached to their own colleges, which retain their own identity and integrity. This pooling of resources means that there is a wide range of courses available, and also that students are exposed to a diverse range of views (of both students and lecturers), while still belonging to colleges that are confident and outspoken about their own convictions.
Ridley’s catchphrase is ‘roots down, walls down, bridges out’. With firm evangelical ‘roots’ there can be an openness to encounter different traditions (‘walls down’), without being distracted from the task of mission and evangelism (‘bridges out’).
Ridley’s term-time placements are known as ‘attachments’, and are basically a student’s home church. The college seemed fairly relaxed about this, and recognises the importance of students (and their families) belonging to a church where they can feel comfortable and find support.
Wycliffe Hall (Oxford)
Oxford (like Cambridge) is an amazing and stimulating city to live in. Wycliffe Hall is not far from the centre, and is a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford, which means that students at Wycliffe are full members of the university, and (for example) that the tutors at Wycliffe act as the tutors for the students studying for the Oxford degrees (see below). As with Cambridge, there are world-class resources available, such as the libraries of the Theology Faculty and the Bodleian Library.
The college itself is compact but not at all cramped, with fine buildings and a well-stocked library. Spouses and families are very well catered for.
Most students live within easy cycling distance of the college, and the college is very proactive in providing or finding accommodation for students.
Of the (100 or so) students, around half are Anglican ordinands, and the rest are either taking various undergraduate or postgraduate theology courses, or are studying as part of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). This is a one-year course (popular with North American students), and the OCCA students share courses with the first-year ordinands. This makes Wycliffe extremely good for those who are keen to get a good grounding in apologetics.
The student body is mostly evangelical, with a strong conservative evangelical contingent. Like Oak Hill, and unlike Ridley and Cranmer, the male ordinands significantly outnumber the female ordinands.
The daily chapel services are at the heart of college life, and (as with Oak Hill) feature a mixture of student, faculty and visiting preachers, with the worship in an Anglican evangelical style.
Traditionally the ‘other’ college for conservative evangelical ordinands to consider, Wycliffe has an excellent reputation for its teaching on conservative evangelical core subjects, such as biblical studies and languages, doctrine and apologetics. Most students follow the Common Awards programme, but a significant number take the Oxford BA, and the college has an excellent track record for its BA students achieving very high marks.
Wycliffe was the most relaxed of the colleges when it comes to the term-time placements, and they seem happy for students simply to attend an Anglican church of their choice. Outside of term, there are plenty of opportunities to take part in missions around the country, along with OCCA students.
It’s been a fascinating couple of months, and a real privilege to be able to visit these colleges. It’s been particularly helpful to be able to chat informally to students and faculty, to attend chapel or sit in on a lecture, and generally to get a feel for the place.
In terms of teaching, Oak Hill and Wycliffe would be the safest options, from a conservative evangelical perspective. With Ridley and Cranmer, things are slightly more risky, though I get the strong impression that the teaching is basically fine, and that it’s possible to flourish there as a conservative evangelical. If I was young and impressionable, or if I didn’t have such an academic background, I might be best off in the more cloistered setting of Oak Hill. But I’ve had a living faith for twenty years now, and I’ve been preaching regularly in a conservative evangelical expository manner for more than a decade, so I think the fundamentals are sufficiently within my bones to risk exposing myself to something broader, if other considerations lead me towards one of the other colleges. In any case, all of the colleges would expose me to a wide range of different perspectives, and all of them would encourage me to learn with my critical faculties engaged.
In terms of community, all of the colleges came across as closely-knit and harmonious environments, with good relationships between students, and very supportive staff.
In terms of location, we’re geographically flexible. However, having experienced life in outer suburbia for the past 2-3 years as a young (ish), childless, carless, football-less and dog-less couple, and not having felt entirely at home, we’re not filled with joy by the prospect of living on the edge of suburban north London, compared with the cultural vibrancy of Durham, Cambridge or Oxford. I wouldn’t decide purely on that basis, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
In terms of my peer group, I think it’s extremely important to leave college having formed some close friendships to sustain me (us) in the years to come. Without knowing who will start college at the same time as myself, it’s difficult to be sure about this, but I’m (reasonably) confident that I’ll find a few people I ‘click’ with in any of the colleges.
In terms of exposure to breadth, there are considerable differences between the colleges, and this is related to the ‘church’ I anticipate ministering in. The standard conservative evangelical view is that you should belong to a conservative evangelical local church, and such conservative evangelical local churches should support each other by working together for training, sharing resources, mutual encouragement, and planting more conservative evangelical local churches (or turning existing churches into conservative evangelical churches). But beyond that, all other forms of ecumenical engagement are of limited value. If that were my view of things, then Oak Hill would be the obvious choice. Going to Oak Hill would plunge me right into the heart of this cross-denominational conservative evangelical network (of which I’ve been a part for a good 15 years).
But that’s not the nature of the ‘church’ I see myself ministering in, and this is something that’s very important to me personally. One of the main reasons I returned to the Church of England was so that I would be forced to rub shoulders with the wider Body of Christ. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is broader than conservative evangelicalism. And the only way the global church is going to reach maturity is if all the different parts of the body begin to recognise one another, and learn to love one another and to build each other up. This will never happen if we segregate ourselves from each other. So while I have no desire to dispense with my conservative evangelical theology (which I love), I’m nonetheless desperately keen to get to know some of my non-conservative-evangelical brothers and sisters. I want to rub shoulders with people from charismatic evangelical traditions, from open evangelical traditions, and even from more liberal or Catholic traditions (and ecumenically too). This is a two-way thing: I’m sure there is a huge amount I can learn from other traditions, and if I have anything to offer to people from other traditions, I want to become good at articulating my view of things in a winsome and persuasive way. I have very little experience of engaging seriously with people from other traditions, and I want my time at college to be a period in which I gain some competency at doing that.
At Oak Hill, my face-to-face exposure to other traditions would come primarily through the placements. At Wycliffe the student body is slightly more diverse, and there would be more opportunities through the city of Oxford itself, and through occasional joint events with the other theological colleges in the area. At Ridley the student body is more diverse still, and there are many opportunities to learn from other traditions through the Cambridge Theological Federation. But Cranmer seems strongest in this regard: the student body is sufficiently diverse to include a good number from all the different ‘wings’ of the Church of England (including the different ‘streams’ of evangelicalism), and there is the opportunity to engage with them from day to day both in classes and also informally, through being part of the same (harmonious and prayerful) college community. Cranmer Hall therefore provides the opportunity not only to receive a broadly evangelical training, but also to do so in community with people from a very wide range of traditions.
For these reasons, primarily (there’s a lot more that could be said), I’m pleased to announce that the winner (or loser) is… Cranmer Hall in Durham. So that’s where we’ll be heading at some point before the autumn!
Oh, and the food was best at Cranmer Hall. But that didn’t influence my decision at all. Honest.