Wesley House in the 1990s
The Revd Dr David M. Chapman

Wesley House in the 1990s

The Revd Dr David M. Chapman

I came to Wesley House as a graduate student with my wife and infant son in 1991 and left in 1995. In those days, most students at Methodist ministerial training colleges could expect to spend either two or three years in residence for ministerial training, depending mostly on their age and likely future service. A longer period of ministerial training for some was an exceptional gift of the church, usually intended to facilitate research degrees.

 

Even from a student perspective, it was apparent that the 1990s was a time of rapid change for Wesley House under the influence of new trends in the preparation of candidates for ordination in the Methodist Church. Reflecting developments common to all the churches, Methodist ministerial students became ‘student ministers’, and their training as such became ministerial ‘formation’. Though the term ‘pathway’ had not yet been introduced to describe the burgeoning number of routes through ministerial formation, already there were signs of greater flexibility in response to the changing circumstances, experience and needs of accepted candidates for ordained ministry. The hitherto rigid distinction between full-time (residential) college-based and part-time (non-residential) course-based ministerial training was already beginning to fade. Alongside those in permanent residence at Wesley House were a small number of part-time students commuting on a daily or weekly basis to be part of the community of formation. More generally, the diversity among student ministers at Wesley House in terms of age, experience, gender, and ethnicity was probably greater than in any previous decade.

Wesley House in the 1990s

The Revd Dr David M. Chapman

Spiritual Formation

The spiritual formation of student ministers at Wesley House was greatly facilitated by living in community and sharing together in a daily, weekly, and termly pattern of corporate worship and prayer centred on the college chapel. Its architectural style made for an intimate setting focussed on the communion table. Though rather plain in typical Methodist fashion, the chapel nevertheless provided an atmospheric setting for worship. On bright days, the sun lit to vivid effect the stained-glass window depicting the new Jerusalem.

 

Morning prayers were held in the chapel every weekday led by one of the students or staff according to a termly rota. The ringing of the chapel bell – a favourite task of the chapel steward – summoned the college community to worship: three sharp pulls on the bell rope for each person of the Trinity. Visiting scholars in residence and others staying at Wesley House would often join the community for this short service based on a lectionary Scripture passage, prayers, and a hymn. The cycle of praying by name in turn for every former student now serving Methodism in Britain or overseas was a constant reminder of the ‘bright succession’ of ordained ministry in the universal Church.

 

In addition to morning prayer, a weekly act of worship for the whole Wesley House community was held, mostly in the common room but sometimes in the chapel. Occasional services of compline or night prayer were also held in the chapel, where reduced lighting contributed to creating a sense of belonging to a tightly bound monastic community.

 

Formal services in the chapel led by the principal and members of staff were held to mark the beginning and end of each term, still quaintly referred to as the Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter terms, following the university pattern. The beginning of year service was an occasion to welcome new students and any newly appointed members of staff. The annual service to give thanks for the founders and benefactors of Wesley House gave an historical perspective to student life – as did the photographs (adorning B and C staircases) recording each cohort of students dating from the first intake in 1921. The end of year service was a particularly special and moving occasion, marking the sending forth of probationers to their first ministerial appointment in circuit.

 

Beyond the Wesley House community, a weekly act of worship was held at Wesley Church for all the participating houses in the Cambridge Theological Federation, led in turn by one or other of them in the liturgical style of their theological tradition. Besides exposing student ministers to a variety of liturgical and preaching styles, Federation worship provided a vehicle for innovative forms of worship such as liturgical dance.

 

Less formally, prayer triplets and cell groups met regularly at a time of their own choosing. From time to time, student ministers might band together to form groups – some of them ecumenical – to pursue different types of spiritual formation through, for example, Taizé chant or Celtic prayer. Looking back, the regular pattern of worship, especially its ecumenical dimension through the Cambridge Theological Federation, introduced student ministers to a broad range of spiritual resources that besides contributing to their spiritual formation provided a deep well from which to draw later in circuit ministry.

Academic Formation

The original vision that inspired the foundation of a Methodist ministerial training college in Cambridge continued to yield a substantial, though changing, practical benefit in the 1990s. Visiting scholars in residence from other universities and colleges, many of them Methodist, enriched the life of Wesley House. Though perhaps on sabbatical or study leave from their institution for a term in order to complete writing projects, many of them participated fully in the Wesley House community and contributed to worship and teaching.

 

As a founder member of the Cambridge Theological Federation, along with Westcott House, Ridley Hall, and Westminster College, Wesley House was well placed for the time being to withstand the incessant pressure for substantial reductions in the cost of ministerial formation which inevitably led to financial reviews and the closure of theological colleges. The Federation established an ecumenical pool of educational resources (including college libraries) specifically for those engaged in preparation for ordained ministry. Student ministers engaged in academic formation through the Federation had available to them a wide range of course options taught ecumenically by college staff from across the colleges. Assessment was through written examination or in some cases by the submission of coursework. For the greater part of the 1990s, the University of Cambridge validated the Federation’s academic course with the award of a Certificate in the Theology of Ministry.

 

As an attached house of the University of Cambridge, Wesley House was also able to draw on the academic resources of the Faculty of Divinity, at that time still located in the Selwyn Divinity School opposite St John’s College. A small number of graduate students were able to matriculate (usually through Fitzwilliam College) for enrolment on Part II of the Theology Tripos, leading to the award of a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology. Negotiations between the university and the Cambridge Theological Federation in the 1990s led to the establishment of the Bachelor of Theology for Ministry (BTh) degree, which was made available to a larger number of student ministers.

 

Teaching in the Divinity Faculty was principally through lecture and seminar programmes with one-to-one supervisions in which a nervous student’s essay – inevitably the product of fevered travail and angst in equal measure – might be forensically dissected by a renowned scholar. A biblical language, either Greek or Hebrew, was a compulsory course element of the Tripos, giving students an invaluable tool for biblical studies and an insight into the theological complexities of the Scriptures. Access to the university library with generous borrowing rights was an invaluable and enduring benefit. But whatever academic course they followed, student ministers left Wesley House with a sound theological education and the tools for lifelong learning and development.

Pastoral Formation

The formation of student ministers to exercise pastoral ministry in circuit appointments involved classroom-based teaching, pastoral placements in local churches and other settings, and regular preaching appointments in circuits near and far. Whatever academic programme an individual might follow, all students were required to undertake the necessary pastoral formation since the objective was to prepare presbyters (and increasingly deacons) for circuit ministry in the Methodist Church.

 

Classroom-based teaching addressed many of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of ministerial practice, though student ministers were encouraged to share their experience from pastoral placements, effectively shaping them to become reflective practitioners. By the 1990s, racial justice was a growing concern within the Methodist Church and issues in human sexuality were also on the church’s agenda. All student ministers were required to complete racism awareness training as well as training in consciousness of human sexuality. These short courses were provided by external agencies and made available across the Cambridge Theological Federation. A term of voice coaching for public speaking proved to be an enlightening addition to the curriculum – improving delivery and projection as well as detecting when speakers tended to drop their voice at the end of sentences.

 

In their first year of ministerial formation (and in the second year for those on a three-year course), student ministers could expect to lead Sunday worship three or four times a term on the Wesley House preaching plan. Many of the circuits in which students preached were long used to receiving ministerial students and provided welcoming (as well as generally forgiving) congregations for relatively inexperienced preachers and leaders of worship. Students often led worship in the numerous small country chapels in the depths of the Fens or Cambridgeshire countryside. Sometimes hospitality was provided, which was always a welcome change from college catering.

 

In their final year of ministerial formation, student ministers were allocated a pastoral placement in which they were attached to a local church in or around Cambridge for the whole year. Students with their own car might be expected to travel further afield in the county. Pastoral placements provided those preparing for circuit ministry with valuable ministerial experience under the watchful supervision of the local minister in pastoral charge. Students would make pastoral visits, lead worship and preach, address house groups and fellowship meetings, and generally assist the minister in anything else by mutual agreement. Sometimes it would be possible to conduct baptisms and funerals, though naturally the opportunities varied from place to place. Besides being a safe space in which to learn from the experience of working with congregations in a pastoral role, these placements also provided a timely means of transitioning into a ministerial identity.

Human Formation

Besides spiritual, academic, and pastoral formation, the formation of ministerial identity also involves continuing formation as human beings in Christ. Ministers must be self-aware, especially in relation to their own personality with its corresponding strengths and weaknesses. They need to develop emotional intelligence, empathy, and good interpersonal skills to relate to a wide range of people from different backgrounds. To flourish as creative agents of transformation in the world, they need to develop cultural and intellectual interests beyond the narrowly ecclesiastical.

 

Living and working in a diverse community of ministerial formation intentionally provides opportunities to learn useful skills in navigating the complexities of human interactions. Even the use (or rather misuse) of the car park, laundry or children’s play area demands grace and patience. The social dislocation and transition in personal identity among those engaged in ministerial formation can lead to heightened tensions and displaced feelings of frustration, manifesting itself in disproportionate grumbling of one kind or another. The Wesley House community was no exception. However, regular college meetings presided over by officers elected by students provided both an essential safety valve and a practical exercise in managing expectations and resolving differences.

 

As far as the process of human formation was concerned, the Wesley House community of the 1990s exhibited two notable features that signified a greater diversity in the student body than ever before. By the 1990s, the admission of women to the ordained ministry in 1974 had produced a marked increase in the number of younger women preparing for ordination so that the Wesley House community comprised approximately equal numbers of men and women. There was also a sizeable contingent of married students, whose spouses shared in college life to a greater or lesser extent while mostly working in the vicinity. The steady increase in the average age of student ministers also meant that several families lived on site with young or even teenage children. A small number of student ministers and families from overseas churches enhanced the diversity of the Wesley House community, as did the presence of part-time, non-residential students.

 

The Rank Building, opened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1973 mostly housed married student ministers in one or two-bedroom flats, each with a small balcony overlooking Jesus Lane. Single students tended to occupy ‘sets’ in the founder’s building around the central court, each comprising a bedroom and sitting room with shared access to a kitchen and bathroom. The elegant pair of Queen Anne houses situated at 31 and 32 Jesus Lane provided staff accommodation, offices on the ground floor, and flats for student families on the floors above.

 

If not quite up to the manicured standard associated with Oxbridge colleges, the lawn at the centre of the court at least provided a surprisingly quiet space away from the constant traffic in Jesus Lane, where in summer students might still enjoy a game of croquet – a residual feature of earlier and more youthful generations of Wesley House students. Reputedly, the Cambridge Theological Federation had a punt for the use of students. If so, its whereabouts remained a closely guarded secret to which no one I knew was privy. In any case, such vestiges of Cambridge undergraduate life – along with summer balls, madrigals on the Cam, and squashes in tutors’ rooms – had little affinity with the purposeful and intensive business of ministerial formation, involving mostly older men and women, crammed into a period of less than two years.

 

Still, the wood-panelled college dining room on A staircase with its chandeliers and impressive portraits of former principals provided a traditional setting for college meals, even if the ‘high table’ had long since disappeared under the influence of democratising trends that placed staff and students on a more equitable footing at least as far as dining was concerned. At that time, students at Westcott House, just across the road in Jesus Lane, also ate their meals at Wesley House until their own catering facilities were established, thereby instigating a financial crisis that led to a severe reduction in provision. College meals were self-service and distinctly unceremonious, except for end of term dinners which were semi-formal occasions with speeches and much sense of joyful relief among staff and students alike. Since alcohol was not permitted in public rooms at Wesley House, afterwards students would retire to various flats or sets to continue the end of term celebrations in a more convivial style.

 

Along with the dining room, the ‘new’ common room provided a hub for student life, though perhaps to a lesser extent than in previous years. In the days before email and electronic communications, its noticeboards and pigeonholes provided an essential means of communication, so that anyone dropping into the common room with the intention of discovering some exciting piece of news would be sure to find others doing the same. If the community was no longer as homogenous as in previous decades, there were determined efforts to ensure that none felt isolated or excluded. Spouses met as a group with their own programme. A rota among the resident community ensured that hospitality and late evening refreshments were available for anyone to share each weeknight.

Memories

An abiding memory is of the end of year student revue that offered an hilarious send up of college life in which no one was safe from featuring as an unwitting butt of satire. Some of the sketches would have done credit to the legendary Cambridge Footlights, which has launched the career of numerous comedians. Besides putting the year in levelling perspective, the student revue reinforced the growing bonds of a Wesley House community that had worked and prayed together in spiritual, academic, and pastoral formation in preparation for ministry in the Methodist Church. In some cases, lasting friendships were forged that have been a great source of mutual support in ministry.

 

I hope others will recognise the above account as a fair reflection of Wesley House in the 1990s, even if their own memories as former students or members of staff may differ in certain respects. Given the annual turnover and diversity within the student cohort, as well as changes among the Wesley House staff, it is almost certain that experiences and memories will be different. Rather than mention the names of individuals – inevitably a selective and limiting endeavour – I will leave the reader to supply such details, either from their personal knowledge or from information available elsewhere in the histories of Wesley House. To the principals, tutors, bursars, visiting scholars, librarians, administrative and support staff, a generation of student ministers owe a debt of gratitude for their forbearance and generosity of spirit in the task of forming men and women for ordained ministry and senior leadership in the Methodist Church in Britain and overseas.