Wesley House in the 1970s

College Life
The Revd Dr Brian Beck

The first significant change in College life was the acceptance of married students. In earlier years it was the Church’s policy to accept only single men for the presbyteral ministry and permission to get married was granted only at the end of training and the subsequent probation, a period in total of five years or more. There were rare exceptions, and one such had been allocated to the College but had been obliged to live in College separated from his wife and visiting her only during the day. This was probably in part to ensure that he observed the University rule to ‘keep nights’ in college as part of the qualification for a degree. Another, more recent, exception had been when the Revd Peggy Hiscock, on furlough from Zambia, spent a sabbatical in the College and had to be accommodated in rooms in the Principal’s Lodge. All this was bound to change, and after the retirement of W F Flemington as Principal provision was made for married students in the College’s nineteenth-century tenements backing on Jesus Lane. With the erection of the Rank Building it was possible to see the admission of married students as a normal aspect of College life.

In 1973 the Methodist Church accepted its first women candidates for presbyteral ministry and seven were allocated to Wesley House, although one had soon to withdraw through ill health. Attitudes in the College were still rather conservative, and although every effort was made to provide for them their own testimony much later has been that those initial years were difficult for them.

By far the greatest change  to College life in this period however was the creation of the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges. The beginnings were modest, their context in part the Anglican-Methodist union scheme which was being debated by the Church of England and the Methodist Church but failed, to the disappointment of many, to gain the necessary support on the Anglican side in 1972. But the main impulse was concern over a review of Anglican theological training which was proposing the closure of a number of colleges. In 1968 the Principal of Westcott House, the Revd Peter Walker, and the Chair of the Council, Professor Dennis Nineham, approached the Principal of Wesley House, Gordon Rupp, with a view to co-operation.

Initially only the two colleges were involved, Ridley Hall not joining until near the time of the formal opening in 1972. Westminster College was absorbing the consequences of the formation of the United Reformed Church in 1972, which brought together the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches in England and involved locally the union of Westminster with Cheshunt College. Westminster became a member of the Federation in 1976. The focus in those early years was on shared worship, shared access to libraries and shared meals. Wesley was committed to the University Tripos and lectures for all its students (to which were added systematic theology, homiletics and pastoralia taught by the Tutor), Westcott and Ridley followed courses prescribed by the Anglican authorities and Westminster had its own syllabus taught internally. Only gradually did shared teaching develop as the colleges’ patterns of work became more varied. The original programme involved shared evening prayers in Wesley chapel Monday to Friday, followed by dinner in Wesley dining room (now extended through its link with the Rank Building), and on Sunday mornings an 8.0 am shared Eucharist celebrated in the Rank Room, led by each college in turn, followed by a light breakfast. This did not wholly suit  all traditions: Wesley students were still committed to Sunday preaching engagements in local churches and the URC tradition required Sunday to be celebrated in a local church.

There were less formal developments, such as a Federation football team, and it was possible to accommodate some Anglican students in the Rank flats and in rooms on C staircase. There were tensions, over ways of worship and over meal provision, but it was an important beginning from which a much larger and significant institution has developed. Many would say that the most lasting legacy of the early years was the cross-denominational friendships formed and the wider ecumenical experience gained.

In those early years Gordon Rupp as Principal brought vision, scholarship and humour to the College at a time of great transition. In 1974 he was succeeded by Michael Skinner who had served as Tutor since 1959. He had played an immense part in overseeing the changes to the buildings, ably assisted by the Bursar, Norman Bargh. He was particularly concerned about the way in which pastoralia was taught. In the original College pattern one hour a week in the final Easter term of a student’s two (sometimes three) years was devoted to lectures on the subject, backed by experience gained by  preaching in local (and sometimes more distant) churches on Sundays. Michael Skinner introduced a pattern by which groups of students were allocated to local churches, Haslingfield and Hilton among them, to visit during the week and preach at weekends. The group would then discuss the worship one of their number had led. This replaced the more formal sermon class involving the whole college responding to one of their number preaching in the chapel which had been the tradition.