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.

22 Comments on “Travails at Wycliffe Hall

  1. Thanks, Peter.

    Does this mean that the members of the Council who appointed RT and backed the “Turnbull experiment” will resign as well. It sounds as though a good case could be made for saying they should.

    • I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer a question like that. The impression I get though is that the Hall faculty and Council are now of a mind to move on past the recent crisis.

    • I’m not really the right person to answer that question. The impression I get though is that both the Hall faculty and the Council now want to put the crisis behind them and move forward. I’m not sure how further resignations would help to do that.

      • I appreciate that. I was just wondering how much the responsibility for the “experiment” rested with Turnbull or those who appointed him. Therefore if he had to go …

  2. I must say, though an outsider, I am glad the Turnbull experiment is over. I have met Elaine Storkey on a number of occasions. She is a remarkable woman who was treated abominably.

  3. If you’re going to work for a broad based Church you have to respect that Church and its history, and that starts with broad based training. Personally, I don’t see any conflict between that and a commitment to truth. That’s my two-penny’s worth.

  4. Peter, it would help if we could have some idea what the ‘Turnbull experiment’ was trying to achieve. Your report makes it look like the appointment committee were just being bloody minded and uncooperative with the University for not particular reason. Though things went quite pear-shaped, they must have had some good intentions?

  5. The problem that they will face for some time (and therefore this will be financially very taxing) is that once you lose your reputation it takes a long time to restore it. Unless they get someone who can convince both ordinands and dioceses that things have radically changed wouldn’t you be wary about applying for the next few years? And if most of the current students are con evos won’t that make it difficult for women and open evangelicals and charismatics?

  6. As someone who studied at Wycliffe from 2006-08, during the first crisis under Richard Turnbull’s leadership, I am not surprised at this turn of events, and actually quite pleased. Wycliffe changed almost overnight from a place that embraced a healthy diversity of evangelicals (which, within the wider CofE, isn’t actually that diverse) to one which seemed much more set up for those from a more conservative background. It simply became a place where I, as a firm evangelical but charismatic and very supportive of women’s ministry, didn’t want to be. The recent years have also seen huge changes in the ways we train people for ordination which Wycliffe doesn’t seem to be addressing, so it’s no surprise at all to hear that numbers have dropped. While a return to previous eras of academic rigour but poor management needs to be avoided, Wycliffe has to get out of the cul-de-sac in which it currently sits.

  7. Fascinating. Out of interest, had the previous “broad” (though not Broad!) approach at Wycliffe which you describe been the position for a long time before that? My vague impression had been that Wycliffe was seen as more conservative evangelical than Ridley back in the early 90s, when I was at Oxford – but as I spent most of my time at Oxford as an atheist, I didn’t really engage much with such matters. And back then, there were probably rather fewer Anglican evangelicals who supported women’s ordination anyway than is the case now.

    • I was there from 02 to 05 and whilst the year above me had a noticeable Reform contingent, the general feel was broad Evo. My understanding is that that had been the case for at least half a decade previously.

  8. Thanks for this Peter, I’d say it’s a broadly balanced take on the situation. Having heard accounts of the most recent events from other sources, they broadly line up with what you’ve written above. (Much better than the ridiculous piece on Virtue Online from a few weeks ago.)
    The saddest thing for me is that while these events have often played out in the media and blogosphere, there’s a very real pain for those who are part of the WH community and to have things kick off again after just a few years since the last wave of bad publicity must be particularly difficult for current students (and staff).
    One other factor has been the decline and end of having undergraduates at the Hall, which helped bring a balance to the community – my understanding is that Alister McGrath worked v hard to have undergrads there in the first place from 1996 (may be wrong on that date), and it’s a shame that they were phased out (although in reality very few were applying anyway due to bad press).
    Also, it might be worth clarifying that Philip Johnston didn’t leave until sometime during the 2009-10 academic year to my recollection.

    My hope and prayer is that this can be something of a new beginning now – Will makes an excellent point regarding the difficulty of regaining a lost reputation, so the new principal will have to be someone of real stature and wisdom to be able to do this.
    It’s not going to be easy though, so we must keep the staff and students in our prayers as the path may be rocky for a little while yet.

  9. Have you double checked your link to Oak Hill?? It currently leads to a children’s nursery in Brockley! I can’t comment on the accuracy of your picture of the other colleges you investigate, but I know that my students are all in their 20s or over! :)

  10. Thanks Peter. The Church of England, and wider church, needs a strong Wycliffe Hall (speaking as a Trinity Bristol man) so praying for the right person to come in and, under God, turn things around.

  11. As an outsider I am not sure why it is so distressing to some that WH has a particularly “con evo” identity. That is certainly the impression I got over here years ago (Packer, McGrath, et. al.) though like any other institution currents change. The CofE is a very broad Church and as such there are plenty of schools where those who do not hold WH distinctives can study within CofE, yes?

    • Hi Wyclif, in the UK (I’m guessing you’re from abroad) the con evo grouping is probably less associated with doctrinal issues than ‘softer’ outworkings – a complementarian approach to women’s ministry, non-charismatic, and (I hope I’m not speaking out of line here) somewhat suspicious of wider church authorities. By that standard Packer is more conservative than McGrath, whose wife is also ordained.although both are doctrinally conservative.

      Just from a marketing point-of-view turning WH conservative was a bad idea – Oak Hill is the main conevo college, and between Oak Hill & Wycliffe there probably aren’t enough con evo ordinands to go round. More widely Wycliffe had developed into a really good meeting point between the different ‘streams’ of evangelicalism, and had a very strong faculty.

      Perhaps above all there’s the whole sense of conflict and ‘bruising’ leadership style that’s been off-putting – certainly it put me off when I was looking at colleges a few years ago. I wanted to learn from people i could look up to and learn good models of leadership from, and (whatever the reality) the negative publicity suggested I’d do better elsewhere.

      • PS Just to add that although Packer went to WH as a student, his subsequent career was mainly associated with Trinity Bristol, and Latimer House, Oxford (an independent reasearch centre). As you say institutional currents change, and Trinity nowadays is still evangelical with a strong missional edge, but more in the open & charismatic streams.

  12. Peter, Do you know if the recent redundancies at Wycliffe were also related to Turnbull’s departure?I believe that the significant one was Will Donaldson, Director of Christian Leadership. Donaldson is a moderate charismatic who is in favour of women’s ordination, so I’m sure he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Turnbull in many areas. Perhaps the redundancies were as irregular as the appointment you mentioned and were part of a further attempt by Turnbull to load the faculty with conservative evangelicals.

    • I can’t confirm that for sure, but I’m led to believe it was one more aggravating factor. Will be interesting to see the next set of public accounts…

  13. I’m an American and not that informed about political infighting at “Evangelical” schools of the theology in the UK. That being said, I met both Richard Turnbull and J.I. Packer at the Wycliffe Hall/Reformed Theological Seminary lectures in Orlando, Florida, February of 2008. You Brits would probably consider me as one of the dreaded “fundamentalists”. I do not agree with progressivism or softening the doctrinal propositions of Scripture to accommodate to changes in modern culture. That include the ordination of women and homosexuals. Furthermore, I reject the notion that the CofE is supposed to be a via media between Rome and Geneva/Canterbury/Wittenberg/Heidelberg, etc. The five solas of the Continental Reformation and the English Reformation forbids the compromising of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, the Latin translation of the 39 Articles includes the term “sola fide”. (See Article XI). In a mixed crowd Turnbull toned down the doctrine of sola fide and instead called the doctrine “justification by faith”. That sounds ok but on closer examination it is a capitulation to a more generic rather than particularized doctrine. I took Turnbull to task for this on the side.

    Although I am sad to see Turnbull “sacked”, it was probably inevitable given that visible churches/communions, denominations, and seminaries are primarily secular organizations and not primarily organized as local congregations where the Gospel and the law of God are rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered. (Article XIX).


    Charlie J. Ray

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