Wycliffe Hall and the “posh college” debate

What should we expect of a theological college?

 There has been considerable discussion recently surrounding the issue of “value for money” and “fitness for purpose” of full time theological education.  I have my own views on the immense value of full time theological residential training (see http://www.simonvibert.com/writing/articles/CEN%20article_on_full_time_training.doc).  But I think we would agree that the goal of all such training is to equip and train godly ministers for Gospel ministry.

 Julian Mann has publically challenged me to defend Wycliffe Hall in the light of his article in the EN and the subsequent letter from one of our students Matthew Swires Hennessy (see http://cranmercurate.blogspot.com/2009/08/what-are-we-paying-for-in-thelogical.html).  If I have understood him correctly, Julian’s main contention is that Oak Hill is best placed to train ordinands because it is not “as posh” as Oxbridge colleges and provides a more useful practical theology.

 I have no intention of being drawn into a debate over the relative strengths and weaknesses of Wycliffe versus Oak Hill.  Apart from anything else, I was a student at Oak Hill, for which I am most grateful, and am now Vice Principal at Wycliffe Hall and wish to see both institutions prosper!

 There are several reasons why I was appreciative, and ultimately accepted, Richard Turnbull’s invitation to teach at Wycliffe Hall, which in no particular order, include the following:-

1.  I am absolutely committed to evangelical parochial ministry in the Church of England.  Since Ordination in 1989 I have served as a Curate in Carlisle, been the minister-in-charge of a church in the small market town of Buxton in Derbyshire, and been incumbent of a leafy suburban parish in Wimbledon.  These varied environments have led me to conclude that England is unlikely to be revived unless Gospel new-life penetrates urban, suburban, rural, wealthy, poor and every other demography across the land.  Parochial ministry, despite its limitations for Church planting etc., is still a great gift to the national church.  It is a major goal of our training mindset that we seek to bolster the faithful ongoing witness of Gospel ministry in local communities through high calibre preparation of men and women for ministry.

2.  The particular focus to Wycliffe’s training was another great attraction for me:  We have sought to concentrate on 3-4 main ends or goals.  For sure, we cover the core curriculum in biblical studies, doctrine, church history, ethics etc.  But to what end?  The answer is that we seek to train: leaders, preachers, evangelists, church planters and apologists.  This requires practical and pastoral focus.  Hence, alongside the rigorous academic demands of being a PPH of Oxford University, Pastor-teachers such as myself seek to bring grass-roots ministry experience to earth the teaching in real ministry goals.

3.  Wycliffe Hall has a marvellous academic and ecclesiastic heritage.  For sure, not everyone at Wycliffe will study on the demanding 2-year BA course or do post graduate study.  Of course for some this also means many other opportunities to excel in sports, debate, church life, etc.  But Wycliffe seeks to make the most of the excellent resources which a university town offers:  rigorous academic scholarship and the marvellous heritage of a university which, after all has the Scriptural words “The Lord is my Light” as its foundational motto.  I do not want to forget, either, that the vision of the founders of Wycliffe Hall, under the leadership of the great JC Ryle, was in part that Wycliffe Hall would be a witness to the University, reminding them that the learned mind is a humble mind which first bows its head before its maker before bowing over its books.

 There is much more, but for now, I do hope Julian and others, that you will pray for Wycliffe and Oak Hill, as well as the other evangelical colleges.  We are not in competition with each other.  We need your support and encouragement and prayer in order that we may, under God, do our utmost to form godly ministers for Gospel work up and down our land.


6 thoughts on “Wycliffe Hall and the “posh college” debate

  1. Julian Mann September 3, 2009 / 8:30 am

    Thank you for this excellent response Simon, which I’ve posted over on the Cranmer’s Curate blog. This is a valuable conversation to have. I have three questions still outstanding in my mind:

    1). Can the Wycliffe Hall Council really guarantee Classic/Reformed Evangelical succession in its principal as effectively as can Oak Hill’s independent Kingham Hill Trust?

    2). To what extent are Evangelical ordinands at the Oxbridge colleges pursuing student ministry on behalf of university churches and parachurch organisations to the detriment of a thorough grounding in sound Evangelical theology for effective Word ministry after college?

    3). To what extent are the opportunities to excel in the extracurricular life of the university being used by some ordinands to compensate for the fact that they missed out on the Oxbridge experience as undergraduates?

    With all Christian good wishes,

    Julian Mann


  2. John September 3, 2009 / 8:55 am

    I’ve recently left Wycliffe, and am now in parish ministry in the North West.

    I’m not going to comment on the Hall Council, but I think I know a bit about 2) and 3).

    With 3), I think that might be true of a very small minority – most of those who are involved in wider university activities use it as a way to keep on playing rugby (for example) and to meet non-Christians. For my part, I was an undergrad at Oxbridge as well (so it’s not compensating), and I enjoyed the opportunity that university-level competition gave for meeting and working with people I would not otherwise have met.

    On 2), I think there probably is a danger here. I deliberately spent my second and third years at college outside the traditional evangelical city-centre churches. But I genuinely don’t think there are sufficient churches in and around Oxford to give people good experience of working with people who aren’t middle-class and university educated. I think it’s a weakness in the staff team as well – although it is great that so many of them have experience of parish ministry, the vast majority of that experience has been in white middle-class areas, and those are the very backgrounds that most of the students already know.

    People at college therefore need to make the most of opportunities such as summer placements and missions to get experience of UPA work, etc.

    And I definitely think that Wycliffe would benefit from greater intentionality in making sure that people’s experience there covers a wider variety of situations than might be the case if they just coast through in the way that some do. It’s something I think that Oak Hill does better than Wycliffe, just as there are some things I think Wycliffe does better than Oak Hill.


  3. John September 6, 2009 / 3:50 pm

    Having thought about 1) a bit, I’d much rather the Hall Council was able to guarantee that future prinicpals were godly and love Jesus than that they were classic/reformed evangelicals. I’d count myself as one of them, and I think that doctrine is really important. But without love, doctrine is nothing.

    If I had the choice between:
    * someone who ticked all the theological boxes but seemed to be ungenerous, unloving, proud and not interested in his own personal holiness
    * someone who was loving, generous, holy and intelligent, with a decent amount of theological discernment but not nitpicking, who had a real passion for Jesus and was genuinely trying to follow Jesus whereever he led and that wasn’t quite classic/reformed evangelical – maybe more charismatic or seeing a greater value in ceremony for his own walk with Jesus or something like that

    I’d pick the second one every time. And I’d worry about anyone who’d pick the first.


  4. Julian Mann September 9, 2009 / 11:50 am

    There is no reason for the Wycliffe Hall Council to have to make that choice when the time comes for the excellent Richard Turnbull to move on – by God’s grace there are men out there in the Anglican Evangelical constituency who are both soundly Reformed/Classic Evangelical in theology and loving, generous, holy and intelligent. I will spare their modesty by naming them but names and addresses can be supplied.

    With all Christian good wishes,

    Julian Mann


    • Dawn December 8, 2009 / 9:43 pm

      ‘by God’s grace there are men out there…..’

      I guess that sums it up.


  5. Tim October 11, 2009 / 9:01 pm


    I’m probably not overly-qualified to comment on this as I have only just arrived at Wycliffe but I am slightly puzzled as to why you feel you need to bring up the specific issues that you do in questions 2) and 3). I wonder at the question behind the question in each instance.

    • Regarding your question (2), I can understand the danger, also noted above by John, of being sheltered from the different flavours and varieties in the church of England but this wasn’t your point. It seemed that your point is that ordinands shouldn’t be spending much time doing ministry while at Wycliffe; they should mostly just be learning about it. If this was your point then I beg to differ. Surely at the top of the wishlists of most evangelical theological colleges is the longed-for presence of several local churches and parachurch organisations that can offer ministry opportunities to ordinands so they can serve alongside their studies and apply what they are learning dynamically so as (among many other reasons) not to get stale. In fact, linking to your concern in question (3), it is actually when we get particularly precious about our studies because we are at ‘Oxford’ that we begin to lose focus and aim for that 1st rather than for what brought us here in the first place – to become better ministers of the gospel.

    • On your question (3) (and I do hope this isn’t taken the wrong way), do I detect a note of reverse-snobbery? I fail to see how involvement in the extra-curricular life of the university should be deemed as unhelpful. Surely one of the most common complaints of the clergy are that they are socially stilted and narrow? If your concern really is the perpetuation of middle-class norm, then instead of dissuading ordinands from getting involved in the life of the university, isn’t it better perhaps to recommend playing football instead of rugby, in order to have more in common with the lower-middle class?

    Maybe there are people here who studied at Durham and jumped at the opportunity of a second chance (and I’m sure aren’t too thrilled about being reminded of this, as if it were an awful thing)… but if your point is that deciding to train for ordination at Oxbridge is motivated by self-interest then surely we have left the bottom line way behind. At the end of the day, whether or not Oxbridge-prestige has played a part in the decision, the main reason people here have chosen to study here is because of academic excellence, evangelical credentials and passion for the church of Christ and the glory of God.

    As an addendum to both points, the fact that Oxbridge has sent such large numbers of pastors and missionaries both to the most underprivileged and/or far-off (abroad) regions as well as the privileged and local should be enough to silence us all on the matter of whether or not these two universities specifically are suitable places to be prepared for Christian ministry.

    At the end of the day, our attitude to Christian ministry should not be ‘we have a vision and we have the best chance of realising it’ to the exclusion of ‘we bear the torch that flaming fell from the hands of those who gave their lives proclaiming that Jesus died and rose’. In the context of Oxford, these are no mere words…

    I hope my concerns are fair and expressed in a charitable-enough manner.

    In Him.



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