Mike Still undergoes a year of ordination training at St. Mellitus College, London
Whether I was responding to a late vocation or I hadn’t been listening to a long-standing call, I found myself recommended for training for ordination following a selection conference in October 2016. Jonathan Baker, the Bishop of Fulham, was kind enough to agree with the conference’s recommendation and it was now time to decide upon a training venue.
I have, for many years, been a full-time teacher of maths and computing at Quainton Hall School, a prep school in Harrow of which many ND readers will have heard, as it is the only school owned by the Guardians of the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham. Sadly, three years at St. Stephen’s House or Mirfield were not going to be possible training options as I needed to remain working full-time at school. So my choice of training establishment for self-supporting ordained ministry was going to be limited! My earlier discussions with my Willesden area DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands) had suggested only a very small selection of possible part-time courses which would be appropriate for my location and my situation.
My favoured establishment was going to have to be St. Mellitus College, at their centre in St Jude’s, Earl’s Court. My DDO, several clergy friends and Bishop Jonathan all expressed various opinions such as “not sure you’ll like it there”, “not really your / our thing” and similar. When talking to them I gathered that it could be a trying experience but needs must … !
The College was founded in 2007 by Bishop Richard Chartres and the then Bishop of Chelmsford, John Gladwin. It had been recognised that London and Chelmsford needed to make more options available for theological training towards ordination and locally licensed ministry. Since then the College has expanded to offer teaching for full-time and part-time students in the dioceses of London, Chelmsford, Liverpool and also Plymouth (starting this September). This year there have been around 210 ordinands in training spread across the sites. I believe I am the first ordinand of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda to study at St. Mellitus, although I know of another who is due to follow this September.
From my very first visit, when I was interviewed by Assistant Dean Dr Jane Williams, I was introduced to the college ‘catchphrase’ of ‘Generous Orthodoxy’. The college’s intention is therefore to draw staff and students from across the breadth of traditions in the Church of England, so it is populated by catholics, charismatics, evangelicals, pioneer ministers, and more besides! I have to admit that I was still a little sceptical when I arrived for the first teaching sessions. I soon met the fellow Tuesday evening newbies who have come to comprise my formation group under our tutor Revd Carys Walsh. This little gang of 14 of us quickly became good friends, and the encouragement we are giving each other has been of great support to me and, I suspect, to each of us. My particular part-time course (mine is a diploma rather than a BA) in theology, mission and ministry takes place on Tuesday evenings, and the format is well established: we eat together at 6:30, worship is at 7:00 and the evening’s lecture runs from 7:30 to 9:15. This allows students the chance to catch longer distance trains home, although mine is a simple enough tube journey back to Harrow. My immediate group includes ordinands from Reading, Oxford and Birmingham as well as all parts of London. In addition to the Tuesday evenings, all the ordinands (from all sites and all year groups) gather for six residential weekends and one residential week each year. So far these have all been held at High Leigh or Hayes conference centres. These residential sessions provide extra input particularly for ordinands on spirituality, liturgy, preaching and the occasional offices, as well as sacramental theology, including baptism, confession and the eucharist. The worship at these sessions is deliberately planned to include services in as wide a range of traditions as possible, and I have been invited to be co-leader of the sacristy team for these occasions. Having been head server at St. Mary the Virgin, Kenton for some years, I was asked particularly to assist those ordinands who will be taking up placements in Anglo-Catholic parishes in finding out about what is done in our particular tradition, and more importantly, why!
It was at the first residential week that I first experienced the full breadth of liturgical background and practice among my fellow ordinands. Our lecturer on liturgy asked us to spread ourselves across the lecture hall according to our ‘home’ tradition. Charismatics and evangelicals went in fairly large numbers to one wall, there was a good smattering across the middle of the room, and a small number of us gathered completely at the opposite end. For the remainder of the lecture time, we met in small groups ‘across the divide’ and this started some wonderful conversations. I learned plenty and I hope that my friends from ‘way over there’ did too.
Not surprisingly, from the start I found some of the worship to be rather outside my comfort zone, but over the intervening months the mixture of BCP, extempore and Common Worship evening prayer has been interwoven with the eucharist on a regular basis, and I am becoming more at home with those forms I had previously hardly encountered. For about half the time, the eucharist is celebrated by one of the female staff, but the spirit of ‘mutual flourishing’ holds fast! About half of the ordinands in training are women, and many have become among my closest friends. We agree to disagree on one important matter, but the five guiding principles are holding fast here. Liturgical music is not high on the agenda in the college, but a scratch 4-part choir gets together for some of the residential gatherings, with a very broad repertoire. I am getting to know some of the worship songs which are used in some of the services on a regular basis, but I am certainly not yet an expert at these!
The College President is Bishop Graham Tomlin (Kensington) who lectures occasionally on his specialist subject – Luther and the Reformation. Bishop Rowan Williams has also lectured in our Church History module. Other lecturers are also superb, and I leave each Tuesday evening refreshed but mentally stretched. My full-time employment means that I don’t always have the time I really need for background reading, and I haven’t written an essay in anger for very many years.
The London venue has been very sensitively adapted from St. Jude’s church; a large café area, a well-stocked theological library with over 9,000 volumes, academic offices, lecture halls and seminar rooms have all been created without spoiling what is still a rather beautiful church building. Support from tutors, college counsellors and chaplains is always available.
Ordination, locally licensed ministry, post- and undergraduate degree and diploma courses run in various ways at all the college sites, as well as access courses designed for those who are unfamiliar with academic life; the college website will give all the details you might want. If one of these could be the course you need to take your theological training that bit further, or on your path to ordination, come on in; there are no big bad wolves here.
* title suggested by Bishop Richard Chartres when I met him at a college eucharist just after his retirement in February 2017.