The Founding of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

By Atherstone, Andrew | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Founding of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford


Atherstone, Andrew, Anglican and Episcopal History


Since 1877 Wycliffe Hall theological college in Oxford has been preparing students for ordained ministry within the Anglican Communion. This paper examines the reasons for the hall's establishment, its evangelical basis and the accusation of ecclesiastical partisanship leveled at the institution by its Victorian critics. It surveys the nature of training offered under the hall's first two principals and its early battle for survival.1

AN EVANGELICAL RESPONSE TO SECULARISM AND RITUALISM

During the nineteenth century more than twenty theological colleges were founded across England and Wales." Some were connected to dioceses, such as those at Chichester (1839), Wells (1840), Cuddesdon (1854), Lichfield (1857) and Salisbury (1861),3 and are interpreted by Arthur Burns as a product of the mid-Victorian "diocesan revival."4 Others had a specifically evangelical foundation, such as St. Aidan's, Birkenhead (1847) and St. John's, Highbury (1863).5 Not until 1917, however, were clergymen in the Church of England required to undertake training at a theological college before ordination. A degree from Oxford or Cambridge had long been considered sufficient preparation, but this idea gradually vanished as the universities' Anglican credentials were dismantled. After a lengthy political campaign by university liberals and nonconformist leaders, the Oxford University Act (1854) abolished subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles on matriculation and graduation, and Cambridge soon followed suit. As the first principal of Wycliffe Hall later declared: "the possession of a University degree means absolutely nothing from a religious point of view. A Mahometan, a Hindoo, an absolute Atheist, may take his degree at Oxford."6 The University Tests Act (1871) also opened most teaching posts to non-Anglicans, and the previously ubiquitous clerical don became a rarity.7 The Oxford Honours School of Theology and Cambridge Theological Tripos were launched, as theology became just one subject amongst many and was no longer taken for granted as a core component of higher education. In the face of this rapid secularization of the universities, some founded new Anglican colleges for undergraduates, such as Keble College, Oxford and Selwyn College, Cambridge.8 Others founded Anglican theological colleges to supplement or supplant university instruction, such as those at Gloucester (1868), Lincoln (1874), Ely, Leeds and St. Stephen's House, Oxford (all 1876) and Truro (1877). Within this context, Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and its sister institution, Ridley Hall in Cambridge, should be understood as a response to secularism within the universities and a sign of growing discontent with the theological education provided there.

The second development which contributed to the establishment of these two halls was the high-profile controversy over ritualism in the Church of England, which reached fever pitch in the 1870s. The widespread adoption by the ritualist successors of the Oxford Movement of doctrines and ceremonies previously considered Roman Catholic was thought by many to be a betrayal of the Protestant heritage of the Anglican church. Rival societies battled for ecclesiastical supremacy, with the Church Association fighting firmly against the English Church Union's attempts to reintroduce the "six points" (eucharistic vestments, wafer bread, altar lights, the mixed chalice, incense and the eastward position) into every parish in England. Under the notorious Public Worship Regulation Act (1874), Parliament's attempt to "put down ritualism," several clergymen were prosecuted and imprisoned.9

In the midst of this ferment, the idea for an evangelical theological college connected with the universities was first put forward by Edward Carr, incumbent of Lamorbey, near Bexleyheath in Kent. In the summer of 1875 he published two articles in the Christian Observer and Advocate, the most prominent monthly journal of evangelicals in the Church of England. …

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