09 December 2019

Sad to hear of the plans to close
Saint John’s College, Nottingham

Saint John’s College, Nottingham … due to close next summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It was sad to read in the Church Times at the weekend that Saint John’s College, Nottingham, is to close after 156 years.

While I was on the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I worked closely with Saint John’s and the college staff. The principal, Canon Christina Baxter, was an external examiner at CITI and a regular visitor, and I also worked closely with other staff members, including the Revd Dr Tim Hull, tutor in theology.

With other members of academic staff at CITI, I lectured on the three-year course for NSM ordinands leading to Certificate in Christian Studies awarded by Saint John’s in association with the Open University and the University of Chester. I also supervised post-graduate research leading to the MA in theology and art from Saint John’s College and the University of Nottingham.

I regularly visited theological colleges in England, to compare notes and network with academics who were teaching in the same fields as I was teaching in, including Church History, Liturgy and Patristics, and I was welcomed to Saint John’s in 2013.

A statement last week said the college council agreed last month [11 November 2019] ‘that the operation of the current configuration of St John’s is no longer financially viable in the long term,’ and that the process of closure would begin.

It now looks as though most of the 28 people working at Saint John’s, including tutors, are to transfer to new posts in institutions that continue the college’s distance-learning and youth-ministry work. But, inevitably, there will be job losses and redundancies by next summer.

Students have been reassured that their courses will continue until they have completed them.

The Principal of the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the Revd Dr Alex Jensen, a former lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological College, suggested there is ‘great fear’ in the Theological Education Institutions (TEI) sector that other closures could follow. ‘Hardly any college or course is financially sustainable,’ he told the Church Times last week, wondering when ‘the next college or course falls by the wayside.’

The broader context for theological education was illustrated by figures seen by the Church Times, suggesting a target in the Church of England of a 50 per cent increase in ordained vocations is unlikely to be met by 2020.

The Church Times said there have been ‘signs of trouble’ at Saint John’s ‘for some time.’ The college had 60 students last year, compared with 108 in 2016-2017, and 223 in June 2016.

Saint John’s decided in 2014 to stop recruiting students, including ordinands, to study on campus. Plans were announced for ‘remodelling the college to meet the future training needs of the Church.’ It was renamed Saint John’s School of Mission in 2015, although it later returned to calling itself Saint John’s College.

Plans were made to place students with a church and to study for two days a fortnight at the campus. All recruitment was suspended for the academic year 2016-2017, and the last ordinands finished training in June 2017.

Healthier finances were secured in 2017 when land was sold for a new housing development. The college reported a surplus of £1.3 million in 2018, compared with a deficit of £612,853 the previous year. The Revd Dr David Hilborn, who welcomed me to Saint John’s six years ago, resigned as principal at the end of last year, and is now Principal of Moorlands College, Christchurch, an evangelical college in Dorset.

As far back as 1997, the college was facing financial pressures and falling student recruitment. But a ‘mixed-mode’ delivery of ordination training was introduced, and two years later the Midlands Institute for Children Youth and Mission (MCYM) was opened on site, in partnership with Youth for Christ, offering two undergraduate degrees. This became the college’s main source of income.

However, the MCYM announced in October it was moving to Leicester to merge with the Institute for Children Youth and Mission. That move includes moving a collection of 10,000 books, while discussions are taking place way with the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, and Saint Mellitus College, East Midlands, to ensure the Saint John’s library has ‘a new home in Nottingham.’

The last remaining building owned by Saint John’s will be sold, and the three parts of the legacy – MCYM, distance-learning, and the library – will be given funds to help to secure their future in new homes.

The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, is to take over the Extension Studies department, offering distance-learning courses and degrees validated by the University of Durham. The majority of staff, including tutors, are expected to transfer to Leicester or Birmingham.

In the gardens at Saint John’s College, Nottingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint John’s was originally founded as the London School of Divinity, an evangelical college, in 1863. Former principals include Donald Coggan, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and the evangelist and theologian Michael Green. Another Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, trained at Saint John’s, as did Bishop Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry, Bishop Vivienne Faull of Bristol, Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, and the recently retired Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore.

The college was founded by the Revd Alfred Peache and his sister, Kezia, after they inherited their father’s fortune. The college was established to provide an evangelical theological education to ordinands who could not go to university. Canon Thomas Boultbee was the first principal and Lord Shaftesbury became the first president of the college council.

The first premises near Kilburn High Road Station were known as Saint John’s Hall, and Saint John’s became an informal name for the college, perhaps because Boultbee was a graduate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

The college moved to Highbury in 1866 and remained there for almost 80 years, with close links to Arsenal FC and their grounds at Highbury. During World War II, the faculty, staff and students were evacuated to Wadhurst School in Sussex in 1942 when the Highbury buildings were damaged by air-raids.

The future Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, became principal in 1944, and for the 10 years he was principal, the college was based at Harrow School and then at Ford Manor in Lingfield, Surrey.

Under Dr Coggan’s successor, Canon Hugh Jordan, discussions began on moving away from London. Canon Jordan believed the future of the college was outside London but near a university. A site was available in Nottingham, where the university’s theological department was growing in reputation. His successor as principal, Canon Michael Green, oversaw the move from London to Bramcote in Nottingham in 1970.

With the move from London, the London College of Divinity changed its name to Saint John’s. As Saint John’s, the college pioneered distance learning programmes in theology in the late 1970s, and made new theological thinking and research accessible to a wide audience through its A5-sized Grove Booklet series.

Later principals included Colin Buchanan, who became Bishop of Aston, Professor John Goldingay, Canon Christina Baxter, the first lay principal, Dr David Hilborn and Dr Sally Nash.

Former staff members include Dr George Bebabwi, an Egyptian scholar who was one of my lecturers at the summer school on ‘The Ascent to Holiness,’ organised by the Institute for Orthodox Studies at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 2008. I still recall how he barely managed to stick to his script as he delivered his paper on ‘Discernment’ with great style, compassion and humour.

Dr Bebabwi warned against what he described as ‘learning wisdom.’ He quoted from the Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, who said: ‘A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drinks to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.’

In the chapel at Saint John’s College, Nottingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 9

The Transfiguration (Luke 9: 28-36) … an icon in the parish church in Piskopian√≥ in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Advent this year, I am joining many people in reading a chapter from Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning. In all, there are 24 chapters in Saint Luke’s Gospel, so this means being able to read through the full Gospel, reaching the last chapter on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?

Luke 9 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3 He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5 Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 6 They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

7 Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. 9 Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.

10 On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

12 The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ 13 But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ 15 They did so and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ 19 They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ 20 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’

21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22 saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’

23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41 Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44 ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’

49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ 50 But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58 And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59 To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60 But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61 Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62 Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

A prayer for today:

A prayer today (International Anti-Corruption Day) from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Let us pray in penitence for how we have allowed corruption to affect equal distribution of natural resources and perpetuate poverty.

Tomorrow: Luke 10.

Yesterday: Luke 8.

‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest’ (Luke 9: 48) … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org