The seven permanent private halls at Oxford have traditionally been backwaters, peopled by earnest, not always young men and women studying for the religious life. They spend so much time in prayer and contemplation that the student life of the rest of the university often passes them by. Admittedly some, such as the Baptist training college of Regent's Park or the Catholic enclave of Greyfriars, are livelier on account of admitting "secular" undergraduates too, supposedly by what is still alleged to be a back door route by some resentful academics elsewhere at Oxford.
However, the number of firsts being awarded in recent years to students at the permanent private halls - most of them in theology - has meant that no one has really had the heart to overhaul an antiquated system set up in Victorian times when vocations were more plentiful. It is often said that if you tinker with the anomalous status of permanent private halls at Oxford you will effectively shut down the university's theology department which couldn't survive with them.
And so the whole matter has been left largely as it is. Until, that is, Wycliffe Hall, one of two Anglican permanent private halls, started hitting the headlines. This 130-year-old institution serves the low-church, evangelical end of the Church of England, training its priests, equipping them with Oxford theology degrees, and admitting enthusiastic lay people with an interest in religion, such as the disgraced former cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken.
Not quite the place, you might think, to inspire a revolution. Yet Wycliffe is in such turmoil that even its most enthusiastic evangelical old boys are talking about it as if it had descended to the lower reaches of hell. Almost half of Wycliffe's teaching staff has resigned in recent months, apparently in protest at the new principal, the Rev Richard Turnbull, a former accountant appointed in 2005.
He is currently very publicly locked in what insiders have described as a "violent personality clash" with Wycliffe's senior research fellow, the well-known religious broadcaster, Elaine Storkey. This regular dispenser, in her distinctive homely voice, of soothing theological nuggets on Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot is allegedly facing a disciplinary hearing for, it is said, simply airing concerns about the new regime at a staff meeting.
Neither Turnbull nor Storkey would say anything to The Independent about the dispute. The departing staff from Wycliffe have also seemingly taken a vow of monastic silence while students there have been threatened with a latter-day Inquisition if they breathe a word of what is going on within its walls to the press.
Yet this ban on airing Wycliffe's dirty linen in public has merely added to the impression that the whole place is living under a reign of terror. And the fevered speculation about what precisely is going on in this hitherto tranquil corner of north Oxford has only increased with the publication by Turnbull's three immediate predecessors of a letter, sent to Wycliffe's president, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, calling for the principal's dismissal.
"The hall is running on borrowed capital," concluded Geoffrey Shaw, Dick France and Alister Mc-Grath, the latter one of evangelical Anglicanism's bestselling and best-loved authors, "and we fear for its future. If this sounds melodramatic, it is realistic".
This has been taken by some to be a coded reference to the damage this unseemly row is doing to the reputation of private permanent halls at Oxford. One of the keys to the universi-ty's tolerance of them in its midst, has been that they keep their heads down. Even if they don't conform to the norm, they don't cause any trouble.
But this becomes another matter altogether when allegations are being made, as they have been, that Turnbull is leading a Militant Tendency style assault designed, it is suggested, to turn sleepy old Wycliffe into a boot camp for US-style Christian fundamentalists. …