The following letter to the editor was published today in full in the Church of England Newspaper and in a shorter form in the Church Times.
from Eeva John, the Revd Geoff Maughan, and the Revd Dr David Wenham
Recent revelations concerning the removal of Dr Elaine Storkey and of the Revd Dr Andrew Goddard and the Revd Lis Goddard from their posts at Wycliffe Hall have ensured that this Oxford Evangelical theological college continues to attract media attention. Over the past six months, rumours have abounded regarding a shift towards conservative evangelicalism, homophobia, misogyny on the one hand, and heavy-handed management involving bullying and intimidation on the other. Until now, out of loyalty to the college and concern for its students, staff at the college have been reluctant to comment, even though the situation has been repeatedly misrepresented in the press by other stakeholders. But now the serious and distressing injustice of the forcible removal of three fellow staff members compels us to set the record straight and to let the facts of the past two years speak for themselves.
Wycliffe Hall was in a strong and healthy position, when the Revd Professor Alister McGrath stepped down as Principal in 2004. But the appointment of a new Principal in April 2005 heralded a new era and the time for various changes, especially in administrative and managerial areas of college life. Staff were open to change, and wanted to work with the new Principal in this.
Distress soon set in, however, as strategic decisions, policies, and appointments were made without due regard for the views of colleagues. Despite intense behind-the-scenes discussions, these acute management difficulties culminated in the first of many resignations: David Wenham resigned as Vice-Principal, and Geoff Maughan, Director of Ministry, left the Hall to take up a parish post.
Tensions continued and reached a new climax at a meeting of staff and student representatives, at which the Principal responded unsatisfactorily to questions from students about various issues, including future staff appointments.
Dr Elaine Storkey, the Hall’s Senior Research Fellow, spoke out forthrightly at the meeting in support of those students and staff who had questions. This led directly to the Principal’s initiating formal disciplinary proceedings against Dr Storkey, and in due course to her responding reluctantly with grievance proceedings.
The heavy-handed disciplinary action, following all that led up to it, resulted in an appeal to the Hall Council from nine mostly senior staff (not including Dr Storkey), asking for their help in resolving the difficulties within the staff team and in bringing reconciliation. This was followed in subsequent months by a series of letters to the Council (six from groups of staff and many others from individual staff members) asking the Council to help.
The repeated pleas for face-to-face meetings with the Council and eventually for independent mediation were consistently rejected by the Council; substantive issues raised by staff were not addressed.
Eventually, the Council initiated a listening process, giving individual staff members access to two designated Council members. The outcome was a brief 140-word statement to the Hall community which reiterated the Council’s unanimous support for the Principal, and emphasised the need for all staff “to follow proper processes, to support the Principal, and to work to the highest Christian standards”.
In the mean time, resignations continued unabated. By the end of the academic year, eight staff members had resigned, two annual contracts had not been renewed, and one senior staff member had stepped down from his management responsibilities in protest.
Not all these resignations were as a direct consequence of the difficulties at the Hall, but many were. Three were staff who had been appointed by the current Principal and had been in post only two years. They could hardly be described as dead wood. Finally, the recent dismissals without grounds of Dr Storkey and the Goddards, none of whom had plans or desires to leave their posts at the Hall this year, has taken the toll of staff departures in one academic year to a total of 13. This represents more than 40 per cent of all support and academic staff.
Clearly neither Elaine Storkey nor the Goddards were alone in their unhappiness with the leadership and management of the Hall: they simply outstayed their welcome as far as the Principal and the Council were concerned.
The rough and tumble of heavy-handed and abrasive management may be the harsh reality of life in some businesses and organisations, but it is unacceptable and damaging in an institution that is first and foremost a Christian community in which future leaders are trained and mentored to imbibe the counter-cultural values of servant and team leadership. Furthermore the severance of the contracts of three members without any justification other than elimination of dissent is unjust. This is particularly the case when so many pleas for help in working towards reconciliation and understanding have been ignored.
Purported theological dimensions to the crisis at the Hall have been eagerly grasped by the press, and expressed variously as an attempt to capture the college for a narrow evangelicalism that is hostile to women’s ordination and homophobic. We are deeply distressed by, and wish to distance ourselves from such attempts to to polarize the Christian community caricature theological viewpoints. However, some of the Principal’s recent appointments, public statements, and changes to the curriculum do, however, suggest a more narrowly conservative emphasis (not to mention his signing of the “Covenant for the Church of England” without consulting colleagues). On the other hand, the appointment of two women academics can be seen as representing a broader approach.
As for the outgoing staff, any suggestion that they were uncommitted to the Evangelical heritage and emphasis of the Hall is untrue: we all held highly the Hall’s long-standing commitment to biblical doctrine, preaching and practice in a spirit of generous theological orthodoxy.
Finally, Wycliffe’s status as a Permanent Private Hall within Oxford University has been under the spotlight as a result of the recent review of all PPHs by the University. An important dimension of the Hall’s vision is to foster the pursuit of evangelical biblical scholarship within a context in which views are respectfully exchanged and heard. The Hall’s association with Oxford University is vital to this vision. We are naturally concerned that the recent events may have weakened this important relationship, but hope that the Council will support the Principal in ensuring that any damage is swiftly and unequivocally repaired.
The events we have described have caused intense pain and perplexity to many people. Although we readily acknowledge that the failures of judgement and charity have not all been on one side, we believe it is important for the wider Church, to which Wycliffe Hall is ultimately accountable, to be exposed to the voices that heretofore have been silent.
As staff who have left the Hall, we deeply regret what has happened, and the divisions that have arisen within the college and among its friends. We continue to have great affection for the Hall and for colleagues and students who have meant so much to us, and we hope and pray, still, for reconciliation, for healing of relationships, and for the rebuilding of the Wycliffe community.
Eeva John (Wycliffe Hall 2004-07); Geoff Maughan (Wycliffe Hall 1998-2007); David Wenham (Wycliffe Hall 1983-2007)