Friday, 18 May 2007

Wither Wycliffe?

Ed: Open Evangelical opinions on this are now being aired here. Liberal opinion may be read here. Conservative opinion may be read here. I have also further blogged on Why theological colleges matter.

Also ... I should probably have spelt the headline as "Whither", as in "Where to ...". Yet for some reason when I think about the headline I am reminded of C S Lewis' villain, John Wither, from That Hideous Strength. Central to the plot of this wonderful book is an 'Oxbridge' style college in a fictitious university town 'somewhere in England'. Wither's name hints at the way that his personality is disappearing - 'withering away' - under the influence of the evil to which he has opened himself up. Freud would no doubt be impressed, but somewhere that image of all not being well at an outwardly genteel college must have stuck with me when I titled this blog.

Earlier this week, even the Guardian could not resist a Sun-like headline above its article on allegations of 'bullying' at Wycliffe Hall Theological College: Unholy row at Oxford's college for clergy.

Ostensibly, the story, posted by Stephen Bates, was about concerns over the management style of the new principal, the Revd Richard Turnbull, described as "a vicar from Basingstoke and a former accountant without senior academic managerial experience". Bates might also have mentioned that Turnbull previously used his accountancy experience to chair a General Synod working party on clergy salaries, and that he has a BA from Reading, a first-class honours degree in theology from Durham and wrote his doctoral thesis on “Evangelical Theology and Social Reform in the Nineteenth Century” (see here). But maybe that would have spoiled the image of an inexperienced jobbing vicar and former accountant taking over a hallowed institution.

Of course, it is perfectly possible that there is indeed a problem with Turnbull's managerial style. That is for others to judge. However, the discerning reader will also notice that Bates has another, quite different, axe to grind, which is that Turnbull is allegedly replacing the existing staff with "conservative evangelicals".

According to Bates, therefore, the dispute over bullying allegations "appears to mirror splits in worldwide Anglicanism - and the Church of England - over theology and homosexuality, which have been aggressively led by conservative evangelical groups."

Yet this conclusion is by no means self-evident, not least because it implies that Wycliffe Hall has, until now, reflected a less-than-conservative position on theology generally and homosexuality in particular. On the contrary, however, Wycliffe is historically one of the Church of England's more evangelical, and in the broad sense, conservative, institutions. The former principal, Alister McGrath, was in no doubt about his own theological sympathies and one of the current tutors, Andrew Goddard, has robustly presented the conservative view on homosexuality in an online debate with Giles Goddard of Inclusive Church.

Managerial bullying, meanwhile, may carried out by liberals as much as by conservatives. What may be of concern to Bates (and others), therefore, is perhaps not an issue of managerial style, nor that Wycliffe is ceasing to be 'liberal' on matters of theology or sexuality (which it never really was), but that it is becoming more clearly identified with conservative as distinct from open evangelicalism, which is the other direction in which the college might have travelled under a new principal.

Yet here one must ask why it should not. There are, after all, a number of theological colleges of other traditions: liberal, anglo-catholic and 'open' evangelical. Up to the present, however, only one, Oak Hill in north London, is identified with conservative evangelicalism, so why should there not be another, particularly as the number of conservative evangelicals in the Church of England appears to be growing?

The answer, of course, is that institutionally, the one thing the Church of England loathes more than a conservative evangelical is a conservative evangelical who is theologically educated. Theological education is supposed to dispel clear conviction and move people towards the liberal centre of the Church. That is why evangelicals are sent into non-evangelical situations in order for their understanding to be 'broadened'. (Oddly enough, one never seems to hear of a liberal ordinand who needs to be 'narrowed'.) In a 'broad church' breadth is good, even if depth may be at a premium.

Canon Patience Purchas' recent extraordinary outburst against Oak Hill was sadly symptomatic of a deeply ingrained dislike of that college amongst Directors of Ordinands in many dioceses. Similarly, the attempt to close Oak Hill in the early 1990s was certainly not justified on the grounds that it could not attract students, and one must therefore ask if there were other motivations.

The fear that a second college might fall into 'enemy hands' may well be behind some of what is happening vis a vis Wycliffe Hall, hopefully not amongst the staff, but perhaps amongst outside observers. Sadly, we may see even more unholy rows in the future.

Meanwhile, we must remember the words of my old friend Revd Harry Sutton, who once said that we must "fight to the death" for a theological college like Oak Hill. Harry saw, with absolute clarity, that English evangelicalism could not be revived without an intellectual centre. Let us hope and pray that whatever problems there may be at Wycliffe, the college, and evangelicalism, will emerge stronger when they are resolved.

Revd John P Richardson
18 May 2007


  1. My comment on the Fulcrum site was simply "hold off on the mud slinging" There seems to have been a rush to press and a rush to comment on this issue. That in itself probably says enough. What are "Evangelical Christians" doing rushing to air their views about another Christian in a secular paper? Why with only one newspaper having raised the story was there such a dash for people to kick in with further mudslinging against Wycliffe.

  2. Stephen Bates has now blogged on the Thinking Anglicans website in support of his own news article, alleging more support for the viewpoint he has taken. However, the 'rush to judgement' based on his original report has certainly been impressive. Predictably, the two issues - management style and theological stance - have become entirely blurred in most comments.

  3. Yes and I can't help wondering how much "management experience" the commentators have. If they had some that would slow down their rush to judge.

  4. It's also interesting that he is taking " a viewpoint" whatever happened to reporting the news

  5. Good comment and analysis. This is how the configuration of C of E evangelical colleges looks to me:
    1. Oak Hill: firmly in the conservative stream.
    2. St John's Nottingham: can't tell, but I note that many of its 1990s staff attacked penal substitution in 'Atonement today'.
    3. Ridley: fairly churchy, open.
    4. St John's Durham: decidedly 'open'; divided, probably losing its evangelical distinctiveness,
    5. Trinity Bristol: probably moving in a more conservative direction after the liberal or 'open' leadership of previous principals and an unsettling period.
    6. Wycliffe: unsettled, probably moving more conservative.

  6. B.o. batcher -interesting analysis -here are a couple of possible theories -what do you think

    It is of note that three of the colleges there Oak Hill, Wycliffe and Trinity plus the renamed Wales Evangelical School of Theological College have all in the past couple of years appointed new Principals all of them younger and new to this type of role. All of them seeming to me to be forward thinkers likely to bring new ideas.

    Isn't it possible that what is really happening is a generation shift -Oak Hill already have quite a young faculty- and that we are seeing a generation of much more confident evangelical academics who have grown up with the Carson's and NT Wrights of this world and feel less need to borrow their academia from liberals and much more able to develop an evangelical theology on their own terms. That's why Open Evangelicalism is being shifted out.

    Another possibility is that sheer market forces are telling. Open Evangelicalism bluntly doesn't work in the pews which means that churches want conservative vicars -so if a college wants to attract students it has to give the churches what they are asking for.