With all the fuss going on about Wycliffe Hall, I was minded to look up an article I wrote back in 2003 for New Directions. Titled 'A Tale of Two Colleges', it compared my experiences of training at St John's College, Nottingham, in the mid 1970s and then at Moore College, Sydney, in the early 1990s.
It was the latter experience which finally persuaded me of the importance of a thorough theological education for evangelical clergy. But it also brought home to me the opposition to this concept which existed in the evangelical camp. Specifically, I noted that, "until very recently ordinands who had come up through the ‘Bash’ camps were encouraged to go to Oxford or Cambridge, not because of the strength of teaching in those universities but so that they might act as informal ‘chaplains’ to undergraduates from those same camps."
Bash's influence is indicated in this comment by Canon Michael Green, principal of St John's during most of my time there: "(Bash) often regarded theologians with suspicion and even mistrust. In his view too many of them knew all about the inner workings of the car, but had never learnt to drive it properly."
Remarkably, I discovered on my return to England from Moore College that this attitude still prevailed. Ordinands from evangelical churches were still being encouraged to go to Ridley or Wycliffe, not to study theology but to do 'student work'.
Fortunately, Alister McGrath did much as principal of Wycliffe Hall to enhance the college's teaching reputation, so that regardless of what took them to Oxford, evangelical students could still get a good theological preparation whilst they were there. However, when the Revd David Peterson arrived from Moore College to be the new principal of Oak Hill, he discovered that one of his biggest problems was getting evangelical churches to send students there to study, rather than to the Oxbridge colleges to concentrate on work amongst students.
Whatever may be happening at Oxford, therefore, must be seen in the light of a sea-change, particularly amongst Conservative Evangelicals who, it must be admitted, have been the hardest to persuade regarding theological education. Sadly, many amongst this camp who have admired the diocese of Sydney have not realised the demanding theological training undergone by Sydney ordinands. Thus even today, when Sydney candidates study full-time for four years, many English ordinands only do two years. And unfortunately, it still shows.
Thanks to Dr Peterson, there is now a generation of English evangelicals who see theological preparation as fundamental to their ministry, and who are beginning to be in a position to encourage and to teach the next generation themselves. With this in mind, perhaps others might be prepared to recognise that, even if Wycliffe Hall moves in a more theologically conservative direction (and that is a major assumption), the result need not be a descent into intellectual obscurantism.
Revd John P Richardson
20 May 2007