It is nearly fifteen years since I started training at Westcott, although I had heard of the place some while before partly through my grandfather, an ecclesiastical historian of the nineteenth century. Having read History at Oxford – and clearly marked by this grandpaternal influence – I was inspired by the respective Liberal/Broad and Catholic/High Church movements, which really meant all paths led to Westcott from the Church of England’s residential-training routes.
I remember a conversation with Andrew Mein at my interview flirting with the idea of the BTh pathway as opposed to Tripos. I think this was because I had left a track of further historical research via confirmation to work as a Pastoral Assistant in a church in Brighton, which I loved; thus the prospect of further theoretical head-work left me unsure. On reflection, however, the opportunity of the Theology degree through Trinity College made most sense, so I arrived in September 2005 ready for two years of Tripos followed by a third year of everything else (that’s a slight exaggeration!)
The greatest formation at Westcott happened for me through this theological path, through membership of a religious community and through friendship. While two essays a week often meant serious cramming and skimming and winging it (sometimes not very well), the range of subjects and the quality of teaching were an enormous privilege that were stimulating then and (pray God) formed in me a theological mind. I particularly enjoyed Patristics and the delight of the Fathers exuding off the page across the centuries in their biblical exposition and forging of doctrine.
The round of prayer was most sustaining too. The Daily Office and Eucharist had become habits in two years as a Pastoral Assistant, but were now built on and deepened and experienced in a new community and a gloriously rich and diverse one at that! It is still striking to survey the range of gifts, talents and former lives of those who landed at Westcott when Joe public still often imagines the vicar from Postman Pat (Rev and Goggle box and others slowly making inroads)! Naturally this community was rather intense at times with lively community issues and discussions, but this was all rooted in our common round of prayer and worship.
And then friendship. Some formed cell groups; most of us got on well most of the time, but a handful of enduring friendships were lovely then and remain sustaining now. If this makes it through the editing process, it was a particular gift to have as flatmate in the first year a certain P.A. Dominiak, who attempted to introduce me to Facebook and more successfully fine Tennessee bourbon! We and our wives are godparents to one another’s firstborns. It was good to have a few “go-to” peers in the hothouse environments of Cambridge and Westcott.
Well, what now, after this nostalgic mystery tour?! Might there be disconnect between church work then theological formation then church work in the form of curacy and on and on without much further study? I tend to think not. I was uneasy about the thought of another degree because I so enjoyed my first experience of Christian community and pastoral work. Many of the connections were then made in that final year of Federation lectures and long placement and other short courses. Then there’s this three-to-four-year-thing known as the curacy; really, quite a splendid apprenticeship. Okay, I have always found it to be a challenge to keep up reading or study and I have only followed the parish track (at the beginning of second incumbency now). Yet those seeds of learning, study, reading were sown and some of them have returned for sermons, conversations and my own nurture and renewal. Hopefully I also have some of the patterns of thought and know where to look and, indeed, have a hunger that was initiated then for the renewing of my mind.
This piece has sent me back to beginnings and to BF Westcott himself, whose two-volume Life and Letters I slowly worked through in the first year (my late-grandfather’s copy). He wrote to his then fiancée on his ordination as Deacon:
‘I wonder how any dare to teach but in the strength of those assurances of divine help which have been granted to our weakness. The beginnings of all new works are most important – habits grow from very small causes; and so, my dearest Mary, pray for me now most earnestly, that I may be enabled to begin my duties, whatever they may be, in a right and truthful spirit, even as I would end them.’
God bless those new beginnings for the current generation of Westcottians, those of us continuing, and our endings!