JEREMY SHEEHEY REFLECTS ON THE PROBLEMS AND THE JOYS OF A YEAR AT ST STEPHEN’S HOUSE, OXFORD
ON SUNDAY, 7 January 1996, I said good-bye to my two parishes in Leytonstone, in the eastern reaches of London and just inside the boundary of the diocese of Chelmsford, and prepared to move up to Oxford. On the Monday morning, I packed up the car and drove up the M40. As I drove I wondered what on earth I was in for “Oh God, what have I done?”, “I must be mad”, and other such phrases went through my mind.
I was happy in my work in the parishes, and I had enthusiastic and supportive congregations, Parochial Church Councils, churchwardens, and curates. I knew many priests who would have given their right arms for my little part of the Lord’s vineyard in Leytonstone. And I had given all of that up to go to be Principal of a theological college. Indeed, there was at that stage no house for me, so I was going to be moving for an indeterminate time from my vicarage to a student room. Indeed, when I arrived I discovered the ceiling had threatened to collapse in the Principal’s study, so I spent the first few days sharing the Bursar’s Secretary’s office and desk!
I knew from my own time at the same theological college how difficult a job it might be, and how intensive and intense the world of a theological college can be. In a climate when many priests look for the security given by holding a freehold benefice, I had even signed the deed of resignation of a freehold. And the language of the deed of resignation had made it very clear to me what I was doing.
Why was I feeling like this as I drove towards Oxford? Well, in a parish, however divided it may be by the various issues faced by the Church of England at the current time, pragmatism plays a part and the ordinary life of the church needs to be sustained: the quota must be raised, the church gutters and drain-pipes must be cleared, the sacraments and services must be duly celebrated, and, of course, the numbers in church must be maintained. Furthermore, however committed the people are to the church, they have their own homes to keep, their own work to do, and their own concerns with which to deal. They are living their own lives, and the problems of the church can only be part of this. In a theological college, on the other hand, the college is home and work and furnishes many of our concerns. In St. Stephen’s House, to which I was bound, I had been told that the various issues and current divisions might be all about which we ever talked. Every single word I said and every single thing I did, like every issue that raised its head, I was told, would be analysed in terms of “the two integrities”.
Now, my parishes contained priests and people as concerned about the current situation as anywhere else, but neither priest, nor people had one-track minds, one-issue agendas, one thing only on the brain. I know that St. Augustine promises us that in heaven we will have one thing, the Easter Alleluia, on our brains (though he says it in rather more poetic words): for when we come to that rest after this period of labour … there alleluia will be our food, alleluia will be our drink, alleluia will be our peaceful action, alleluia will be our whole joy.” I am not at all sure that we want one action and one joy and one-track minds even in heaven, but in any case heaven is heaven, and the Easter Alleluia is not at all the same thing as the present travails of the Church of England.
When Bishop Alan Chesters of Blackburn, the Chairman of the House Council (our governing body) preached at my commissioning and welcoming, he put it in words which expressed very well how I felt on that January day as I drove down the M40 towards Oxford:
“It is not surprising therefore that uncertainty abounds about theological training and in particular the place of residential training in colleges like this. I know, because they have told me, that some think we have taken advantage of him by this appointment and regard Fr. Jeremy’s acceptance of the post of Principal as either a mighty gesture of faith or an example of that foolhardiness in response to the gospel usually associated with those saints whom we honour as martyrs.”
Now, after a year, I can look back and reflect a little. I am not downhearted and I am convinced that this House has a job to do. My main theme is the need to integrate be pastoral training, the academic education in theology, and the spiritual discipline in the one work of ministerial formation. I feel much buoyed up by the prayers and best wishes of many people. And we do not spend all our time thinking about the one issue, although it often absorbs more energy here (as elsewhere) than one might like. Nor am I aware of the state of opinion on all the other matters about which students here used to argue in former tunes being very different to what it was when I was a student here or when I have visited the House subsequently. Indeed, there are a whole series of issues on which I would suggest the state of opinion is rather less liberal than in times past.
It would be idle to deny that the House is divided about the decision of November 1992 and the ordination of women to the priesthood. It is divided, and that is what one would expect of a college which stands very consciously in the Catholic tradition and which reflects that Catholic tradition in the Church of England. Because the Church of England is divided on the matter and especially because the Catholic tradition in the Church of England is divided on the matter, we are divided on the matter. And because we live in this sort of institution the divisions that there are elsewhere are, as it were, seen as if under a microscope here. And it can be very difficult to cope with this. But we are living (at least as far as this particular issue is concerned) with the reality of the Church of England as she currently is, and not with some imagined idealisation of that Church.
It is arguably the case that one of be problems with Catholics in the Church of England is that they have too often lived with an imagined idealisation of that Church and too rarely with the reality. We are living out the process of reception. Those who support the decision of November 1992 and the ordination of women to the priesthood have to accept that the Church of England has also decided to embark upon this innovation by means of a process of reception. That causes them pain, because they have to accept that it is possible, according to the decisions of the General Synod and the House of Bishops, to be a loyal member of the Church of England in good standing and yet not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Those of us who do not accept such ordinations have to accept that the decision of 1992 was indeed taken and that ordinations in reliance on that decision have been held and welcomed by many. That causes us pain, because we have to accept that this has happened.
There are a number of points that I find helpful as I try and cope with all that this implies. First, the fact that priests who preside at the altar here can be seen as acting, not as on behalf of a particular bishop, but as on behalf of the bishops of the House Council and, through them, for the sponsoring bishops, helps us with some of the difficulties experienced by many parishes and priests concerning the theology of communion and the guarantee of the sacraments.
Second, it remains the case that students are formed and trained and educated here in the first instance for ordination to the diaconate, and it is for that ordination that I am asked to commend them to the ordaining bishop.
Third, and perhaps most important, I remind myself, and from time to time remind others, that there are around the world theological colleges and seminaries where Christians (including Roman Catholic and Orthodox) gather in ecumenical ministerial formation and training. If, as some of us would argue, the legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the subsequent decisions of the House of Bishops and the Act of Synod imported, as concerning ministerial order, certain principles of ecumenical life into the life of the Church of England, perhaps what we are at St. Stephen’s House are learning to do is to import certain principles of life in ecumenical institutes into the life of an Anglican theological college.
As I wrote myself in a letter to the ·Church Times: “We believe that we are preparing for ministry in the Church of England (and the wider church) as she is, and not as we each in our different ways, would like her to be. It would be much easier to prepare for ministry in the church as we would like her to be, but much less useful.”
Jeremy Sheehy is Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.