By Julian Mann
Special to virtueonline
December 3, 2012

Without knowledge of recent Anglican politics, the job advert for the new principal of the Oxford theological college, Wycliffe Hall, may look innocuous enough. But actually it spells trouble for conservative evangelicals training for ministry in the Church of England.

Wycliffe wants a principal who has:

* Demonstrable leadership experience gained in a comparable institution or related ministerial/ theological environment.
* Academic achievement consistent with being a Head of House of a constituent part of the University of Oxford.
* Wide and generous understanding of the major trends in contemporary Anglican evangelicalism, together with high level pastoral skills, particularly those relevant to a residential educational and training environment.

Translated from Anglican speak, that is a warm invitation to a candidate who is very different from the previous principal, the clearly conservative evangelical Dr Richard Turnbull. He stepped down last May in controversial circumstances, as VOL exclusively reported.

The door is now wide open for a liberal evangelical academic who will fit into the urbanely godless, port-topping halls of the Oxbridge establishment. Such a person will very likely be an enthusiastic supporter of women bishops with the incipient revisionist approach to biblical interpretation that goes along with that.

Wycliffe looks like it is lost to conservative evangelicalism, leaving only one dog on the track for our constituency, Oak Hill College, in north London. Oak Hill is thriving under the godly leadership of its principal Dr Michael Ovey but the ecclesiastical weather conditions facing a distinctively Reformed Anglican theological college are looking ever more dangerous.

In addition to the growing financial restrictions on residential theological training across the churchmanships, conservative evangelicals are under particular pressure. They are now massively in the dog house with the Anglican hierarchy following the failure of the women bishops measure in the General Synod in November.

Will conservative evangelical church leaders smell the coffee and concertedly get behind Oak Hill?

There are historical reasons why Oak Hill has in the past struggled to get the backing of English conservative evangelicals. The roots of the problem lay in the Oxbridge focus of late Victorian Anglican evangelical leaders such as J.C. Ryle.

Regularly select preacher at both Oxbridge universities in the 1870s, Ryle was instrumental in founding Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in 1877 and Ridley Hall, Cambridge in 1881. Oxbridge was chosen as the strategic location for these residential clerical training colleges, laudably established as evangelical strongholds against the growing influence of Anglo-Catholicism in the national Church.

In the 20th century, the trajectory of Ryle’s Oxbridge strategy led to the establishment of the Iwerne Minster ministry in the 1930s. This work was based on evangelistic holiday camps for boys from the top 30 English public schools. Iwerne’s professed strategy was to reach the few in order to reach the many.

In its focus on the feeder schools into Oxbridge, Iwerne was thus pursuing the logic of Ryle’s strategy. The Iwerne work steered the young men it encouraged into ordained ministry towards the Oxbridge theological colleges and indeed relied heavily on them to follow up university students from the Iwerne schools. Oxbridge students were the main pool for the ‘officers’ (leaders) on the camps.

But the deployment of conservative evangelical ordinands as university student workers had the effect of boosting the numbers in theological colleges that were less than clearly evangelical in the post-war period. Conservative evangelicals were left uneducated for effective biblical ministry, and this weakened our constituency’s ability to contend for biblical truth in the church and in society. Very arguably, our theological weakness was why the ordination of women as presbyters got through the General Synod in 1992.

Since the revitalisation of Oak Hill in the late 1990s under its previous Australian principal, Dr David Peterson, that sad picture has changed to a significant degree. But we cannot afford to be complacent.

With the Church of England’s Ministry Division pushing to homogenise theological education across the colleges, these are difficult days for the training of effective ministers of Christ in the national church. In the coming CofE equivalent of Hurricane Sandy, Oak Hill is a fragile flower that needs cherishing.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire, UK. He blogs as Cranmer’s Curate

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