Robin Ward introduces the new Edward King Centre


In 1970, the radical Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich wrote a book called Deschooling Society. Illich was a cosmopolitan intellectual with a wide experience of working in education, who had spent most of the 1950s and ‘60s contributing to various church and governmental initiatives to forward ‘development’ in Latin America and the Caribbean. His experience left him disillusioned with the top-down model of instruction offered, which restricted access to teaching and learning to those able to access expensive and rigid institutional structures, what he called ‘bridges to nowhere’. The most famous chapter of the book is titled ‘Learning Webs’, in which he anticipates the sort of free access to knowledge that the technological innovation of the Internet has now made a substantive reality.

No one observing the size and shape of theological education in the Church of England today can be under any illusion that it is not about to face a profound crisis. The system is over-complex, unwieldy, inconsistent in what it delivers, and restricts access to teaching and learning in ways which appear increasingly anachronistic in a contemporary setting.  Moreover it is evidently unaffordable, particularly in the light of what will be immense financial difficulties for many dioceses after the pandemic. Attempts to reform it, particularly in the case of the colleges, have been unsuccessful and inconsistent for the past thirty years, misapprehend both costs and the potential for revenue generation, mistake optimum capacity with the size of available buildings, and generate a thick miasma of tiresome and time-consuming compliance ‘activity.’

What to do then? There are two positive signs for the future. First, the Common Award qualification validated by the University of Durham is the one great achievement in the sector since the 1990s. There is now a national qualification which can be accessed by everyone whose educational potential is recognised at selection, and which has the pedagogic flexibility to take candidates from a propaedeutic introduction to theological study through to an MA. Second, out of the dire circumstances of the pandemic has come a realisation across higher education that online tools, once the monopoly of the Open University, offer a whole new way of making ‘Learning Webs’. There is now no reason why a person living on a farm in Westmorland should not be able to access teaching about the Second Council of Constantinople at St Stephen’s House if this is what they are looking for.

To respond to this, the college is launching a new initiative – The Edward King Centre for Pastoral Theology. The intention of this is twofold: first, to deliver off-site and in a variety of accessible ways the experience of teaching and learning that our resident ordinands already experience; second, to secure for the future the specifically Catholic character and content of pastoral theology, so that our lay people and ordination candidates are able to encounter a compelling experience of the riches of our tradition in liturgical, spiritual, moral and practical theology and practice. This is not meant as a partisan gesture; it comes from the conviction that without a specific investment of time and resources from the Catholic Movement in the Church of England at this moment, we will soon be reliant on training delivered by courses and colleges in which there is no expertise or particular commitment to the Catholic understanding of Christian thought and practice in our patrimony.

The Centre is not intended to be another ponderous institutional initiative. It will grow organically, adjust itself to what people want to learn, and gather together teachers and learners from outside the ‘professional’ structures of college staffing. To begin with we are focusing on three areas. First, we intend providing propaedeutic teaching and learning for those who wish to begin theological study and need the foundations in place in terms of basic knowledge and study skills before beginning more formal work, perhaps as ordinands or Readers. Second, we want to help those who have studied for the Common Award and been ordained to further their studies and shape their life-long learning by completing the Award to BA and MA level. Third, we want to set up a wide range of immediately accessible opportunities for theological education and engagement, partly through an Associateship programme and partly through a series of one-off occasions to access special events, lectures and days of teaching and encounter.

The Centre will begin to take shape over the autumn, and we have already been really pleased with the response from supporters: those who are looking forward to participating, and the generosity of funders who wish to support the project as it begins. It is crucial for the future of the college that we maintain a residential community of formation in Oxford, where candidates can continue to come to learn “Who is Jesus Christ, What is the Church, What is a priest?”. A Movement unable to sustain a seminary is a movement which has lost hope in reform and renewal. But as Edward King took from his Oxford years a vision of Catholic life in the Church of England that was pastoral, ascetic, and liturgical, so the college which he founded needs to preserve and perpetuate these qualities according to the signs of the times and the opportunities they bring. So it is that we look forward to continuing our work in a new way and with new people, and ‘break up the fallow ground.’


Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.