Why would any woman in her right mind choose to study at Oak Hill theological college?
This, in essence, is the question I was asked whenever other vicar-types learned where I was planning to train for ministry. Several alluded to Oak Hill’s current (and, I would say, out-dated) reputation outside the conservative evangelical world with something along the lines of, "But aren’t they 'anti-women'?"
It’s true, I would never have considered Oak Hill had not circumstances made it the obvious choice, including falling in love with a fellow ordinand while studying at Ridley Hall, getting married, and moving to North London for his curacy with my studies unfinished. But fast forward two years, and here I am, newly ordained and ready to suggest to any female ordinand, vicar or DDO I come across that they seriously consider Oak Hill as an option for theological training. But I get the feeling that no-one is really listening.
Will the recently published Church of England Periodic External Review Report (a CofE Ofstead) describing Oak Hill as "a safe place for evangelical ordinands, male and female…to train" change people’s minds? In the hope that this report will give some pause for thought, let me add my own encouragement based on my experience of training there.
Yes, Oak Hill was not always the most comfortable place: a ratio of 51 male ordinands to two female ordinands was always going to feel daunting on occasion. I began my first term in nervous anticipation of the moment when I would find myself dragged into a theological corner and beaten over the head with a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy 2. That moment never came, however, and I invariably found my fellow students and the staff to be deeply thoughtful and considerate people.
Those in favour of women priests often made themselves known to me. Those who were not disagreed with me respectfully, and, I believe, on the basis of a sincere desire to understand the will of God as revealed in Scripture, not driven by misogyny.
The quality of teaching there is truly excellent preparation for ministry in an evangelical church
I came to the decision that, given that I am called by God and not by other people, I would not allow my sense of vocation to be shaken by a vague feeling that some of those around me probably didn’t agree with it. I am very supportive of the hard work that is going on to encourage women into pursuing a sense of vocation, based on research that tells us women tend to be less confident at this than men. I have benefited from that encouragement myself. But I am not at all sure that, once on the road to ordination, women need to insulate themselves from those who disagree with them, for fear that they will lose their sense of vocation. After all, it’s not as if any of us will be able to keep away from those who disagree with us in all sorts of ways once we are serving in a church.
The main reason I’m grateful I didn’t stay away from Oak Hill is that the quality of teaching there is truly excellent preparation for ministry in an evangelical church. If you are keen to learn how to rigorously engage with and learn how to teach both Scripture and doctrine from an evangelical perspective, I believe that you could not do much better than go to Oak Hill.
The college is keen to change the 'narrow' stereotype that it has been labelled with
The teaching was driven by a concern to make us effective pastorally; it did not ignore issues raised by academia but was not primarily shaped by them. The standard of teaching greatly benefitted from the oversight of principal Mike Ovey who will be greatly missed following his death at the start of the year.
Where else can you study both biblical languages for three years, should you wish? My one caveat is that any ordinand, male or female, would need to be at least broadly sympathetic with Reformed doctrine, as that is the majority view at the college.
The desire for more women to train for ordination really is there at Oak Hill. The college is keen to change the 'narrow' stereotype that it has been labelled with, but this will only happen when more women actually take the plunge and apply.
Having identified Oak Hill as a "safe place" for evangelical ordinands to train, the PER report asserts that, "Oak Hill will only become a great place for evangelicals to train when the wider church begins to send a richer diversity of ordinands to train there". So if you are an evangelical female ordinand looking around for a theological college to train at, let me encourage you at least to attend an Open Day at Oak Hill, and to go with an open mind.
Sophie Bannister is a Christian, wife, mum and curate in the Church of England. She serves alongside City workers at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate and St Margaret's Lothbury.