Wesley House in the 2010s
The Revd Paul Tabraham
By the Spring of 2012, I knew I was coming to Wesley House that Summer to begin formation for Ministry in the Methodist Church. However, I had no idea that in the Summer of 2012 the British Methodist Conference’s acceptance of various resolutions in The Fruitful Field would mean that I would be in the last cohort of candidates to be trained at Wesley House. What was a remarkable privilege – to study for ministry in an outstanding theological institution, embedded in the Cambridge Theological Federation, and with access to remarkable academic excellence through the University, suddenly felt a rarer privilege still. After 90 years, we’d be the last to have this same experience.
The immediate implications of this decision were profound, and those at Wesley House during 2012-2013 lived, prayed, worshipped, and studied in an environment of considerable uncertainty and anxiety. It was by no means clear at that early stage what the future might hold. In 2013-2014 no new students came for the first time since the college’s inception, and student numbers were halved at a stroke.
However, in the midst of this atmosphere – initially one of hurt, becoming one of change and possibility, Wesley House life continued. While the students continued to learn, study, and discern where their own future lay, the Wesley House Trustees also began discerning where the long-term future of Wesley House would be – and a future beyond Connexional ministerial training for the British Methodist Conference began to unfold.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Hustler, then Director of Pastoral Studies, had preached on friendship, forgiveness and faith in the immediate aftermath of The Fruitful Field decision (read the sermon here). Those studying at Wesley House between 2012-2014 needed to embody those words if they were to remain true to their calling and see the possibilities of God’s hope in the midst of challenge and change.
Wesley House until 2014 was fairly unchanged from many a year before. Student accommodation was varied – from rooms around the court panelled with dark wood and uneven floors, to the Rank building’s uniform spaces. My own was 32/3 Jesus Lane, a staircase winding up from the offices, getting narrower and narrower until reaching a flat at the top which delivery drivers faced with dread, and overlooking the Fellows’ Garden of Jesus College next door.
The New Common Room, underneath the library was a place for fellowship, food, faith-sharing and invariably someone would be in here if company were needed. The surrounding staircases on each side were filled with the annual photos of each cohort – reflecting the changes throughout the decades. Formal clerical dress and initially small numbers of students expanded in style and size as the years progressed. Exclusively white male faces year after year gradually including faces that were female, Black, Asian, thankfully reflecting increasing an diversity in ministry.
Worshipping together in Wesley House and as a part of the Cambridge Theological Federation ensured a wide variety of worship styles and formats – much of it student-led – and was always a good topic for conversation following!
The Chapel was the heart of community life. 8:00am Morning Prayer could be a formal liturgy, silent prayer, something more contemporary in praise and music, or something else altogether. At 7:55am the bell would be rung, and last-minute worshippers could be seen making their way inside the Chapel, hoping for a clear space near the door! Students were not permitted to preach in the Chapel (a rule some would say not always followed to the letter), but those present could hear the tutors open the scriptures and speak with clarity and wisdom.
Compline took place each Thursday evening – after a day when the majority of the community would spend the day learning, eating, exploring faith together, eating as one. Invariably with candles and beautiful singing, Compline was a special service to attend, full of peace. In the light and shadows, we dedicated the day we’d spent together to God, and celebrated his peace for us through the night.
Cambridge Theological Federation worship was held throughout term, and rotated through the nine theological colleges then comprising the Federation – so variety again was being something to be expected, learnt from, and indeed embraced. For example, on any given day The Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies might led worship with incense and chanting; Ridley Hall often with contemporary music and informality; we followed the rhythm of Catholic liturgy of the Margaret Beaufort Institute. Where did Wesley House fit into this pattern? As you might expect, we could offer worship using a wide range of styles and formats, hopefully offering something recognizable as Methodist worship for the 21st Century. The Federation worship pattern engendered a mutual respect of one another’s expression of faith in worship. What was initially a discipline and expectation became a joy and expression of our common life.
Aside from the patterns of worship, much of each student’s week might be spent fairly separately, with each student engaging in different academic courses at either the University of Cambridge or Anglia Ruskin University. Bachelor of Theologies, Masters, PhDs were all being studied each according to gift and specialization. Throughout each year students might be away in a social context setting – often experiencing different forms of chaplaincy, or away for a more protracted period in a circuit and experiencing ministry in a different setting. Given we were to be presbyters and deacons, some were hugely experienced in work or church life, others less so, our patterns of formation often differed considerably. The New Common Room was the place to come and share one’s day, a course, an experience, a theology needing to be unpicked, or just to relax.
Although often apart, Thursdays were a day to come together for a focus on Methodist theology, history, practice and to explore issues relevant to the Methodist Church today. These could involve Rev. Dr. Brian Beck guiding us through Wesleyan theology, or Rev. Dr. Leslie Griffiths unpacking a Wesley Sermon, or one of our tutors taking us through Bonhoeffer. Thursdays meant soup and a roll lunch together, early evening drinks with the Principal, and a remarkable evening meal usually followed, which defies explanation possible in this short space.
During our period at Wesley House, interviews and supervision were frequent – the process of discernment for ministry was never assumed to be over, but something to be explored and nurtured. The variety of students present inevitably meant a variety of ministries would be discerned and followed. Colleagues of mine became presbyters or deacons, some were pastors with a deep need to care and shepherd, some developed a ministry of justice and activism, one tended to get arrested from time to time while exercising ministry in this area. There was no ‘one-size-fits-all’ – and there never should be for people called by God to use the gifts God has already given them.
Other pages give a flavour of worship, study, and formation, and it was the shared life of the community which held our disparate community together. Mutual support of peers was essential and welcomed. Living together does not mean living perfectly together, and like any community, we would sometimes need to work on differences and support reconciliation where needed. On one occasion, when a quantity of milk surprisingly found its way out of one student’ second story window onto a tutor’s car below, a profound moment of confession and forgiveness arose for which I am truly grateful.
Wesley House was a place where, through being in community with one another not just physically but spiritually connected through our common prayer and worship, friendships were made for life. For that I will always be very grateful, and will always remember with great fondness the brothers and sisters I made there.