Wesley House in the 2010s
The Revd Tiffany Newsom
I came to Wesley House for the Michaelmas term of 2015, during what must have been a very unusual and difficult time for those who knew Wesley House before its big transformation. A series of ‘unfortunate’ events forced the community to completely rebrand itself. The school went from training a bumming and bustling community to perspective British Methodist clergy, to an almost completely international student body. And I was the first of those international students! As their first student in this new teaching model, I had the privilege of living through some of the most pivotal aspects of their transition! In an effort to fund this transformation, the college shifted from what was a quite large complex, to one that was roughly a third of its original size. It went from having a large, open courtyard to none at all to a very small one partitioned by a large hedge on one side.
During much of my tenor as a student at Wesley House, I was the only student, and it was necessary for me to live off site because the major building works were drastically delayed. Initially, the building works were to be completed before I arrived, but they were still well underway when I departed in June of 2016.
Despite the delayed building works and some other hiccups in Wesley House’s transition, we were able to build a deep sense of community. I will always carry the relationships I developed with the Wesley House staff and fellow students in the Theological Federation with me in my heart.
In spite of the ongoing building works, the spiritual life of the community continued with very little disruption. During several subsequent visits to Wesley House, it was a wonderful privilege to reconnect with old friends, participate in the worshiping life of the community, and see just how far Wesley House has come, both in the size and diversity of its student body as well as in the completion of the building works.
When I arrived at Wesley House, nearly two-thirds of the original college was now under the auspices of Jesus College, including much of the former accommodations as well as the library. What little remained were the buildings adjacent to the Chapel and the Principal’s Lodge. While Jesus College renovated the remainder of the property that had once been Wesley House, Wesley had begun the long and arduous journey of renovating the North Accommodation Block and creating the Gutteridge Building. They also began constructing the Greenhalgh Building which now houses the majority of the College’s accommodation.
The renovations of the Gutteridge Building took some time, but it now houses the new library and archive as well as common areas and the new dining hall. The gates that now grace the entrance to Wesley House were stunning to see upon my first return visit after the renovations were complete. The views that can be seen from the north and south facing windows of the library and dining hall were a sight to behold after seeing the hectic building site and the massive crane from the window of my accommodations in the North Block for the duration of my stay on site during my studies. The building works made nearly all of the buildings fully accessible through the installation of lifts and ramps. Wesley House is once again a crisp, clean, and inviting place to study in the Methodist tradition!
At Wesley House, I found myself studying the Diploma in Theological and Religious Studies through the University of Cambridge. This was an academically challenging program, but it was well worth the effort. As I struggled with my Greek lessons, Brian Beck was called upon to tutor me. I have to say, I owe nearly all that I still remember of the Greek language to him! Despite being the only student, the staff at Wesley House was fully dedicated to providing me with the best possible learning environment and did everything within their means to empower me to succeed.
If I am truly honest, the rigorous communal worship schedule did not excite me when I first arrived at Wesley House. As the chapel scholar, it was my duty to arrive early for morning prayers each morning to prepare the space and ring the bell. Traveling from off site to do this was a burden at times, but by the end of my time at Wesley House, our morning prayer service had become an integral and formative part of my spiritual practices.
I have always held a deep appreciation for the liturgies of the church but experiencing morning prayer and evening prayer in the deeply connected Wesley House community—small though it was at the time—only served to deepen my appreciation. The deep connection and appreciation I gained for the liturgical roots of our faith tradition is not all that I gained during my time at Wesley House though. The Theological Federation worship services exposed me to new and innovative forms of worship. And through my attachment at Castle Street, I was exposed to All-Age Worship and Godly Play. Together all of these forms of worship came together to form the highlight of my time at Wesley House.
I was privileged to hear a number of prominent Methodist Preachers during my time at Wesley House. Among them were Presidents of Conference, former Presidents of Conference, graduates of Wesley House, supernumeraries, bishops from Methodist denominations around the world, and prominent Methodist scholars, including the Lord Leslie Griffiths, Bruce Birch, and Morna Hooker. The caliber of the preaching far surpassed the quality of preaching that I have experienced anywhere else.
Living at Wesley House through this major transformation, meant waking up, and studying, to the sound of builders laboring away while seemingly making little progress at all. For some time, the staff could be found working off site in a building down the road. Even then, we all had to navigate our way through the building works to get to the chapel for our morning prayer services, the Thursday evening Eucharist services and so much more. It was through the building works we went to reach to Principal’s Lodge for our Thursday evening meals and theological conversations.
Even in the midst of the cumbersome sounds of the building works and the need to navigate around them, we found ways to worship with one another and celebrate the new life of the community coming to fruition. Despite of all of the challenges we faced during that year of transition, we still found time to bound over tea and biscuits and for games of croquet and punting on the Cam.
On several subsequent visits, following the completion of the majority of the building works, daily life seemed to have found a new normal. Students could gather to chat on benches in the courtyard or the common areas of the accommodation blocks. Eventually, the sounds of builders faded into memory as Jesus College finished their renovations and was replaced by the sound of students milling about on the other side of the hedge that now divided the courtyards. Students could be found studying in the new library and a much larger and more diverse student body was to be found gathered around the table of the new dining hall in the Gutteridge Building.
While studying for the Diploma, I was on attachment at Castle Street Methodist Church where I was provided the opportunity to preach several times, as well as the opportunity to hear a broad variety of local preachers from throughout the Cambridge Circuit. Which brings me to my next point, it was fascinating to be exposed to true circuit ministry. Circuit ministry of the nature practice in the UK does not truly exist in the United States anymore, so it was amazing to witness it alive and thriving in Cambridge. I also had the opportunity to participate in the spiritual formation of the congregation through several weekly social activities as well as through ministries of service, such as the Cambridge Churches Homelessness Project.
I find myself filling this section out just because! While I was at Wesley House, the only common area we had were the dining and living rooms of the Principal’s lodge. This is where we held our Tuesday lunches and devotions as well as our Thursday evening discussions and compline services. On subsequent visits, after the building works had been complete, it felt strange to hold these gatherings in the renovated Gutteridge Building.
At the same time, I have found it refreshing to walk into the new common areas of the accommodation blocks and the Gutteridge building. When I returned for the rededication festivities, the library made for a refreshing and enjoyable environment for finishing some of my final essays to complete my degree back in the States.