16 May 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
89, College of the Ascension, Birmingham

The former College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham … now the Al Mahdi Institute

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter – an ‘in-between Sunday’, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. This week, we are in an ‘in-between week’, between Ascension Day and the Day Pentecost. My photographs this week are from places I associate with the life of USPG. Earlier in this series, I introduced the Chapel in the USPG offices in Southwark and its stained glass windows (20 March 2021). My photographs this week are from places I associate with the life of USPG.

This morning (16 May 2021), on this Sunday after the Ascension, my photographs are from the College of the Ascension, later the United College of the Ascension, on Weoley Park Road in Selly Oak, Birmingham.

While I was working on Christian-Muslim relations as the Foreign Desk Editor at The Irish Times, I was offered the opportunity to take a course in Christian-Muslim Dialogue at the College of the Ascension 25 years ago, in March 1996.

The course leader, Canon Andrew Wingate, was later the Canon Theologian at Leicester Cathedral, until recently was a Chaplain to the Queen, and was made an OBE in 2009 for his work in interfaith relations. He was the founding director of Saint Philip’s Centre for Study and Engagement, Leicester, where I also took a course in 2012, and is now a consultant and teacher in Inter-Faith Relations editing and producing many books in the field.

I was at the College of the Ascension in the days immediately after the Dunblane Massacre. Saint Patrick’s Day fell on Sunday that year, and Andrew invited me to preach in the college chapel that morning. I was then a reader in Dublin diocese, and a group of ordinands from Wales who were in the college for a pre-ordination retreat were encouraging about my own explorations of the path to ordination.

The College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham, opened in 1923, when women still faced barriers in access to university education. The opening of the college added to a ‘mini-university’ of small colleges then emerging in Selly Oak, built with Cadbury vision and generosity.

The planned college was proposed by Charles Gore, Bishop of Birmingham, who realised that because Selly Oak was gaining recognition in progressive missionary circles. Until then, however, the Federation of Selly Oak Colleges had been an exclusively Nonconformist project, and for a traditionally high church Anglican mission society to send its women there was, as one Quaker observed, ‘an amazing step.’

The College of the Ascension, with its dramatic chapel and buildings inspired by Lutyens, were opened by Princess Mary and Archbishop Davidson.

For 40 years, the College of the Ascension remained an exclusively women’s institution. SPG’s men were mostly clergy and were assumed to need no further preparation. The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) was formed with the merger of SPG and the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, and in 1965 USPG relaunched the college, opening its doors to male students too.

The Methodist College at Kingsmead closed in 1993, and after many years of discussion, USPG and the Methodist Church agreed to form the United College of the Ascension. The Selly Oak Colleges merged with the University of Birmingham in 1999, and the college later moved to the campus of the Queen’s Foundation, Edgbaston, as the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies, formed in 2006 to train mission partners from the churches in Britain in preparation for service overseas and to welcome leaders from the wider world church to study at Queen’s.

The former College of the Ascension in Selly Oak has since been sold by USPG, and this is now the Al Mahdi Institute, a centre for Muslim scholarship, education, research and outreach in the ‘Twelver’ tradition, with a long-term commitment to dialogue with Muslims and non-Muslims.

I have since returned to Selly Oak, staying at Woodbrooke, the Quaker-run college, for a conference organised by the China Desk of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, representing the Dublin University Far East Mission.

The former chapel of the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak … when this was a chapel, I preached here 25 years ago on Saint Patrick’s Day 1996

John 17: 6-19 (NRSVA)

[Jesus said:] 6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’

The former College of the Ascension became the United College of the Ascension under the sponsorship of USPG and the Methodist Church

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (16 May 2021, Seventh Sunday of Easter) invites us to pray:

Knowing God,
May we trust in Your wisdom,
And follow the path You have set us on.
Let us be faithful disciples,
Spreading the Word.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The College of the Ascension, with its Lutyens-style building and dramatic chapel, opened in Selly Oak in 1923

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

I have also stayed at Woodbrooke, another Selly Oak college … Europe’s only Quaker Study Centre, it is based in the former family home of George Cadbury near Bourneville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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