Travails at Wycliffe Hall

Those who follow my video reports on Anglican TV will know that I have reported on the removal of Richard Turnbull as Principal over the past few weeks. I thought it would be useful to lay out for those who weren’t aware of the underlying events the key factors in why Turnbull was eventually pushed from his position (though of course the official story describes it in a slightly different manner). It’s worth pointing out that I have worked hard to verify key facts from multiple sources and, whilst I am very open to being corrected by the parties involved, I am confident that no such correction will be necessary.

Turnbull became Principal in the spring of 2005, replacing Alister McGrath the famous evangelical doctrine specialist. Turnbull was appointed by the Hall Council on a platform of bringing more management rigour to the college. However, it appears that Turnbull also wanted to turn Wycliffe into the Oxford University version of Oak Hill, the conservative evangelical seminary in North London and this secondary aim began to produce tension. Controversy was not far away with the de facto sacking of both Elaine Storkey and Lis and Andrew Goddard who were at the centre of the college’s ethics and ministerial formation programme. Amidst talk of a purge of charismatic and open evangelicals, other key departures were the esteemed New Testament scholar David Wenham, Old Testament tutor Philip Johnston and newly appointed Adrian Chatfield (now at Ridley Hall in Cambridge). Appointments such as that of Simon Vibert as vice-principal were followed by a Ministry Division inspection report that highlighted deficiencies in the appointments procedure and Wycliffe duely put processes in place, including the obligation to include on any appointment panel a member of the University of Oxford’s theology faculty (a move that was also insisted upon by the University itself in order for Wycliffe to maintain it’s Permanent Private Hall status).

The full timeline of comings and goings over the first few years (which were matters of concern for the inspection by Ministry Division half way through Turnbull’s leadership) is as follows:

  • September 2004 – Turnbull appointed as Principal (but didn’t start till Spring 2005 and only moved to Oxford in summer of that year)
  • October 2006 – David Wenham resigns as vice-principal and from the SMT
  • December 2006 – Geoff Maughan, Director of Ministry and Chaplain and on SMT leaves for a parish. No formal fulltime replacement as Chaplain is made.
  • January 2007 – Disciplinary proceedings brought against Elaine Storkey despite calls for mediation from staff. Storkey registers her own grievance against Turnbull
  • Spring 2007- Vice-Principal and Director of Ministry appointment procedure criticised by key staff members. Philip Johnston resigns from SMT. Adrian Chatfield leaves for Ridley in Cambridge having been appointed by Turnbull less then two years previously. He is followed by Krish Kandiah (also appointed by Turnbull) leaving for position at Evangelical Alliance and David Wenham moving to Trinity, Bristol.
  • June 2007 – A letter from three of Turnbull’s predecessors as Principal expressing concerns over management is leaked.
  • Summer 2007 – Eeva John leaves. Andrew and Lis Goddard placed on extended leave and told they have no future at Wycliffe. Elaine Storkey does not attend her meeting, is summarily dismissed and launchs a claim for unfair dismisal.
  • Autumn 2007 – Claire MacInnes resigns from Hall Council and writes deeply critical open letter. Andrew Goddard raises a formal grievance.
  • 2008 – Employment Tribunal finds in favour of Elaine Storkey. Andrew and Lis Goddard’s jobs are removed in restructuring and they move to Trinity, Bristol.Storkey and Goddards eventually agree settlements with Hall.

The value of the settlements isn’t public knowledge, but a review of the accounts of Wycliffe Hall at the Charity Commission reveals the following figures for “Professional Fees” (which would include legal costs):

  • To June 2006 – £5,535
  • To June 2007 – £4,004
  • To June 2008 – £143,959
  • To June 2009 – £51,045
  • To June 2010 – £8,626
  • To June 2011 – £3,374

I’m led to believe that the figure for the year to June 2012 will also make interesting reading when it is released, with four more redundancies this year and the events of the past few weeks.

So what brought things finally to a head given all this history? Despite Turnbull’s efforts to pitch Wycliffe as the Oxbridge base for Conservative Evangelicals, ordinand numbers were dropping year by year. With dropping student numbers came plummeting finances and plans for expansion of the Hall were soon shelved as rhe overdraft accelerated into a large six figure sum. This spring four more redundancies were announced and behind the scenes panic began to set into the Hall Council, Wycliffe’s governing body, as coming up to Pentecost less than 10 new ordinands were signed up for the new academic year starting September 2012 and none of them were women (highlighting the fact that many people were claiming that female ministerial candidates were being put off Wycliffe by reports that members of the faculty and student body were open in expressing their disagreement with women’s ordinantion). On top of that, there were very few potential ordinands lined up to interview before the autumn and the college was facing an unprececented slump in numbers which could have made the whole institution financially insolvent.

But I’m told the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was related to a key issue highlighted in the Ministry Division’s inspection reports, namely process around the appointment of new staff. Despite both Ministry Division and Oxford University insisting on a non-Wycliffe theology faculty member being on any interview panel, shortly after Easter Turnbull made a key academic appointment without following these processes. What happened next is a little bit hazy,  but it appears that other members of the senior management team, including vice-principal Simon Vibert, went to the Chair of the Hall Council Bishop Peter Forster of Chester and insisted that he either back Turnbull in his going against the agreed policy OR sack him. Peter Forster agreed that this was one step too far by Turnbull and agreed to put Turnbull on indefinite leave. Turnbull then consulted with employment lawyers (as did the Hall Council) but it soon became clear that Turnbull was in no legal position to make any form of complaint about his treatment and so the compromise position of Turnbull formally resigning and accepting a post as Honorary Research Fellow was agreed. Peter Forster followed by tendering his resignation as Chair of the Hall Council last week, perhaps recognising that he should have acted earlier in dealing with the deteriorating position. Certainly, Bishop Forster felt that as the man who had ultimately wielded the axe against Turnbull he was not going to be involved in appointing his successor.

What now? I’m told by college insiders that Simon Vibert, now acting Principal, has the respect and loyalty of most staff and students who are impressed by the calm and prayerful manner he handled the events of the last few weeks, making professional decisions that conflicted with personal loyalties. He is described as “emotionally intelligent – just what we need right now”. However, it is unlikely that he will be interested in succeeding Turnbull and following the appointment of a new Chair of Hall Council the college will seek to select a new Principal as soon as possible. One thing is clear though – as I was told immediately after the news of Turnbull’s suspension was announced, “The Turnbull experiment is over”. What Wycliffe will now seek to do is to find a leader to return the college to the ethos of the early 00s, where a broad cross-party evangelicalism was promoted, tutors sought to shape their students in a wide understanding of Anglican identity and the faculty represented more than just a perceived narrow theological band. What the college needs most of all now though is our prayers.

I have tried to reflect the views and opinions that have been shared with me, together with the facts of events as they have been related to me by a number of sources. I am happy to be corrected on substantive matters above, but please do not criticise the narrative presented without providing evidence of an alternative explanation of events.

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