Trinity was always going to be an amazing location to study. Bristol, the Clifton Downs, easy access to the countryside, the legacy of three great theological colleges, partnership with Bristol Baptist College, amazing grounds, location and facilities… what’s not to like?
But like every college and institution this one has had it’s ups and downs – almost to the brink of closing not long after I left(!) and again in recent years.
I was surrounded by some brilliant students many of whom have gone on to do wonderful things, and a faculty including some incredibly humble teachers and a few ministry practitioners.
Like many students I left college and found it wasn’t long before I needed the long cool drink of the CPAS ARROW course to skill me up for church leadership, and help give me sustainable patterns of life and ministry. At college I volunteered at a church plant, and had an amazing pre-deacon year serving almost full-time at Christ Church Clifton, whose Bishop had denied them a curate for reasons unfathomable to me. But I was itching to get into context and was relieved for the health of the whole church when the St Mellitus track came on board for context based learning.
“…I found in my curacy to my total surprise that I used most of the theology I had learnt in my theology degrees… “
Yet I also found in my curacy to my total surprise that I used most of the theology I spent time learning at Trinity (and as an undergraduate before that). Dan Brown wrote Da Vinci Code and suddenly all my early church knowledge, textual criticism, source analysis etc kicked in… this stuff mattered and it fuelled an effective apologetic for the confused faithful.
I had also spent considerable time growing up – whether through locking horns with fellow students I utterly disagreed with, banging heads against the machine, or (probably far more formatively) getting married to a much wiser human being. On reflection there was something about the ‘retreat to advance’ of residential college that I still believe in. There, as I will happily argue with any of my friends on faculty at St Mellitus, (!) the theology goes deeper and more time is given to intentional formation.
And yet again:
- this only works if the college is filled with living water – a life giving experience for the community – and it is abundantly easy for a college to become stagnant or poisoned.
- the de-skilling that occurs in taking people out of church context is a nightmare and totally unnecessary – even if it is ‘character forming’ to go through adversity surely life already throws up enough knocks along the way?
And so to my visit to Trinity yesterday. It’s two years into the new ‘reign’ of principal Emma Ineson – but reign is certainly the wrong word. On arrival back at the college – she was previously a senior student, guest lecturer, and faculty member at various times – she already knew the heart of the place and the tweaks that would be needed to make it whole. I’m told she spent 6 months teasing out what the vision and values of the college should be with the staff, faculty and students and the result was a memorable cracker:
It wouldn’t work for a church (jargon), but if any ordinand doesn’t know what the Kingdom represents they should, and it’s a magisterial summary of everything God, Jesus and the Bible is all about.
The worship was passionate and wholehearted, the student body lively and engaged (they are struggling to know if they can take any more students next year as the lecture rooms will be so full!), and the rest of the faculty displayed a lovely mix of provocative teaching style (guess who?) pastoral warmth, ongoing care and concern, and a fabulous sermon by the new New Testament lecturer expositing 1 Thessalonians 2, and cross referencing with Acts and his own ministry experience.
But if the values and humble, servant leadership really modelled were the substance of what was positive, the real genius was the shift to more applied contextual reflection. Maybe St Mellitus and other early experiments in contextual learning have been the yeast working through the whole dough. Maybe theological education is changing for the better everywhere? Now students are much more located in context, preaching, ministering and reflecting with real opportunities and responsibilities if they choose to take them. They are also much more carefully taught to do pastoral/applied/ministerial theology and try and make sense of what is going on. This was all beginning in my time at Trinity through the pastoral courses and ministry formation groups, but this ‘Anglican Identity’ module is now much more integrated and wholesome than when we were asked to design brand new churches architecturally with no budget constraints(!!!!) in an add on to the curriculum.
This module makes the college a very safe place for what is now a core and dominant intake – charismatic students wanting good bible content and a residential learning track. It has the potential to take people from thriving resource churches and enable them to be deployable across the church – a huge achievement.
And finally there’s the CPAS / Ian Parkinson factor… the genius of leadership development at CPAS and the practical experience of Ian – both at Marple and with the numerous other churches he has helped in the North West through the New Wine movement – have come together to add a leadership academy to the college. In addition to taught modules students can now spend 2 hours a fortnight with experienced practitioners reflecting on real church leadership issues. Absolutely genius. A breath of fresh air, and one of the known reasons why the numbers are on the up for next year…
For myself in my early twenties I’d probably have still jumped at the chance to do St Mellitus in an exciting London church… but in my late thirties I am thrilled Trinity College exists as it now does… and I wonder what the wisest choice would have been?