Wesley House in the 1970s

A personal reminiscence
Kathleen Richardson

I was a student at Wesley House from 1977-79. That fact reveals already the huge changes that were taking place in the 1970s.  I was a woman with a husband and three children.  I had no first degree and was not to be admitted to the university, though I had the enormous privilege of being allowed to attend lectures of my choice. We lived in a flat above the bursar’s office on Jesus Lane, my husband going to work in Hertfordshire and the children in school.

Changes developed on the experience of previous years but also related to decisions of the wider Methodist Church and its ecumenical relationships, and to changes in society.

There was the obvious need for more space for married students and in 1973 the Rank building was opened.  This enclosed the quadrangle, provided more rooms for married students, and had a large lecture hall and space for parking (though getting into that required considerable skill).

The student body was more varied in age and experience. The decision at the Conference of 1972 to admit women as candidates for presbyteral ministry brought some who had previously been in the Wesley Deaconess Order into the theological colleges for a one-year course. While still accepting candidates straight from university, the Church was also encouraging people to have some experience of life in other employments before coming into ministry, so the age range and skills range within the college was wider.  A two-year foundation course not dependent on the university was offered, which mirrored the experience in other Methodist Ministerial colleges.

Although the wider covenant between Methodism and the Church of England had been rejected, in 1972 the Cambridge Theological Federation was formed, linking Wesley House with Westcott House (Church of England) and Ridley Hall (Church of England) – it was generally thought that Wesley House provided the bridge that allowed for the possibility of that ecumenical relationship! This was extended in 1976 to include Westminster College (United Reformed Church). To consolidate friendships and encourage mutual understanding between the colleges we met in tea clubs and a pattern of joint evening worship in the Rank Room followed by dinner in either the Wesley House dining room or (by rota) at Westminster College was put in place. We were introduced to the delights of Ascension Day with trumpets and breakfast at Westcott, and allowed to play croquet on the lawn at Ridley.

Both our pastoral skills and preaching styles were encouraged by the continuance of the preaching forays into the surrounding circuits, and by the system of placements in churches.  In my first year, the minister in a neighbouring circuit died suddenly and I was sent to help there.  Regular Wednesdays spent in local churches earthed our experience in practical engagement. The Methodist Service Book replaced the Book of Offices in 1975 and became the background for new thinking in liturgy.

Our preaching skills were encouraged by weekly classes where each prepared a sermon, one was selected to preach it and the rest attempted a critique. Another indication of the changes in church life was the innovation in which we had to prepare, deliver and film a ‘children’s address’ in chapel. This was almost unbearable as the other students took on the role of being childlike!

What seems to have previously been a serious attempt at drama morphed into an annual review performed in the Rank Room.  Much was made of the differences in our theological outlook within the federation.  I remember ‘Falling for lace again’, and a wonderful rewording of the hit song from West Side Story – ‘I want to be ecumenical’.

The rigours of scholarship were still in evidence and the library was still quiet.  Michael Skinner took over as principal in 1974, and he and Peggy continued the welcome coffee invitations in the Lodge. The corner classroom still housed the back copies of The Methodist Magazine and university terms were kept.  Visiting students still came from the world church to study and open our eyes to a wider experience of church.

But there were sometimes toys on the lawn, and children’s voices heard from the back where guinea pigs and rabbits were kept. Some students ran a club for the young people in college.  Family life existed both in term and out of term.

I will be forever grateful for the privilege of those years.