Relocating theological education

Julian Mann explains why the current location of Anglican evangelical theological colleges is not ideal for the challenges of twenty-first-century mission

 

If it was ever right to locate Anglican evangelical theological colleges in Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, the needs of biblically faithful ministry and evangelism in twenty-first-century Britain urgently call for a re-think. The question is now whether these rarefied and socially elitist collegiate universities are the right environments for the training of Christ’s missionaries to the United Kingdom.

Late Victorian Anglican evangelicals wanted theological colleges in influential universities to combat the rise of Anglo- Catholic ritualism. But the centralization of Anglican evangelical theological training in Oxbridge was one factor that undermined the broad social base of our movement in the eighteenth-century revival. As the twentieth century unfolded, Anglican evangelicalism became more socially narrow, southern-based and obsessed with ‘strategy’, i.e. reaching the influential upper echelons of society.

In the face of the twenty-first-century missionary challenge, why not move Ridley Hall, Cambridge, to Luton; Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, to Leicester; and Cranmer Hall, Durham, to Darlington or Middlesbrough? Arguably, Trinity Bristol, though not suffering quite the same locational disadvantages as the above three, might be better off in Swindon.

There is a good argument for moving either Ridley or Wycliffe to the north-west of England, which currently does not have a residential theological college – in which case Blackburn, Lancashire, would be a very strong contender.

There are several advantages of relocation to such multicultural cities and towns. Firstly, it would sort out the motivation of the teaching staff, weeding out the career academics wanting to associate with the big published names at a collegiate university. Staff willing to take up posts in Luton, Leicester, Darlington, Middlesbrough or Blackburn are much more likely to be committed to training men and women for front-line Bible ministry in a diversity of communities.

Secondly, moving ordinands out of the collegiate cocoon would set a much better tone for future ministry. Their placements in local churches would be much more varied, cross-cultural and socially challenging. Trainees would gain experience in unfamiliar situations where they would see the need for risk-taking and self-sacrifice in ministry. This could help to break the evangelical gravitational pull towards the safety of affluent southern suburbia.

Thirdly, ordinands would no longer be distracted from the core purpose of theological education. That is to gain a theological grounding in preparation for a lifetime of Word ministry and some practical experience of the diversity of Gospel opportunities in the Church of England. The denomination is not paying for them to do student ministry on the cheap for evangelical networks and churches in Oxbridge and Durham.

It is important to stress that this is not about middle-class guilt or inverted snobbery. If I may make a personal comment, I hugely enjoyed Cambridge as an undergraduate. This issue is about mission: does not the unchanging Gospel of eternal salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone urgently call Anglican evangelicals to break free of late Victorian priorities in the training of Gospel ministers to the nation?

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church
of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire

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