The Principal of one of the Church of England’s leading evangelical theological colleges has taken a leave of absence. While this week’s announcement by the Wycliffe Hall council that Dr. Richard Turnbull’s duties would be assumed by Vice-Principal Simon Vibert follows reports of discord within the school, Anglican Ink has been told the principal’s departure is not related to the wider Anglican Communion’s political wars.
The last six years have been difficult for the school, Anglican Ink was told, and concerns over leadership style and management – not churchmanship – had led to this announcement.
Founded in 1877 to train Anglican clergy, Wycliffe Hall is a permanent private hall of Oxford University, that been able to matriculate its own theology students as members of the university since 1996. Among its former members are Lord Coggan, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. N.T. Wright the former Bishop of Durham, and the Rev. Nicky Gumbel of Alpha Course fame.
In 2007 three members of the college staff, Dr Elaine Storkey, the Rev Dr Andrew Goddard and the Rev Lis Goddard left the school as did some of the members of the college council. Dr. Storkey filed a complaint of unfair dismissal and religious discrimination. In January 2008 the college conceded she had been “unfairly dismissed” as it had not complied with the relevant “statutory procedures” governing her employment.
However, the college said “we strongly refute any allegation that Elaine's dismissal from Wycliffe was in any way connected with her religious beliefs. At Wycliffe Hall, our key priority is to equip men and women for modern ministry and this happens in an environment that encourages wide discussion and debate, reflective of the broad range of thinking within the Church as a whole.”
The college received a second blow in 2009 following the release of an external inspection. The report stated that “the inspection team regards Wycliffe Hall as fit for purpose for preparing candidates for ordained and licensed ministry” and gave the school a mark of “Confidence with qualifications”. But the school needed to improve its pastoral training program.
A press release from the bishops on the college council, Bishops James Jones of Liverpool, Peter Forster of Chester and David Urquhart of Birmingham stated:
“We regret that the inspectors have judged it right to declare that they have no confidence in one area of the Hall's life, in relation to aspects of Practical and Pastoral Theology. We doubt that the evidence which the Inspectors adduce merits such a stark assessment, but we will ensure that the recommendations which are made in relation to this area are given speedy and particular attention.”
Dr. Turnbull’s leave of absence came as a surprise to many outside observers as the college appeared to have recovered from its difficulties. However, an insider who asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the council said the departure of Dr. Turnbull centered round issues of trust and management.
On 23 May the council, led by the Bishop Forster of Chester, released a statement saying:
“Staff and students at Wycliffe were told last week that Principal Richard Turnbull is to take a leave of absence from the Hall. The Council wishes to make it clear that the Principal has not been dismissed. The Council and Richard are now in ongoing discussions over his future role at Wycliffe, with Vice-Principal Simon Vibert assuming the position of Acting Principal. We have every confidence in Simon, and in the rest of the staff, to ensure continuity and the efficient functioning of the Hall during this time.
The outcome of the discussions with Richard will be communicated to staff and students in due course. However, our overriding priority is to ensure Wycliffe remains unequivocally committed to equipping men and women as leaders, preachers, church planters and evangelists in the mission of proclaiming and living the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, with a deeply biblical understanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God.”