Jane, Jenny, and Sam, who are currently studying at Westcott House, consider their experiences of training residentially, from their initial sacrifices and nerves to discovered joys and community living.
Training residentially means that your formation carries on outside of classes
One of the most significant things about residential training is its wholeheartedness. I gave up a career, church leadership and many aspects of my social and family life in order to move to Cambridge and devote myself (almost) entirely to training for ministry. I have found this sacrifice profoundly unsettling, but it has also allowed a singlemindedness in focusing on God. There is a liberty in being released from responsibilities which has allowed me to think about nothing much apart from my training.
Training residentially means that your formation carries on outside of classes, shared worship or other formal activities. Whether it’s bumping into someone in the laundry, sharing a meal, or gathering in the common room for an evening’s discussion of theology, there are many opportunities to reflect on questions of scripture and doctrine with other trainees. There is always someone who has studied that topic before, encountered a similar problem or experienced the same emotions.
I have made friends with people from dioceses across the country and from Europe giving me a better understanding of the breadth of the Church of England than I would have had if I had trained locally. The challenges of being church in the post-industrial north east are different from those in rural Shropshire and different again in inner-city London. My sense of belonging to the Church of England is being enriched by an awareness of these different experiences.
One of my favourite things about the House is the fact that some families live on-site. This means there are children here all the time who bring a great deal of joy and life to the community. You might find them chatting in the dining hall, playing games in the courtyard or singing at compline.
Although Westcott has a distinctive character as a residential college for ordinands in the liberal/modern catholic tradition, probably the majority of us don’t fit this model in one way or another. There are those whose churchmanship is lower or higher. There are many who do not live on-site or who are not at Westcott all the time, and there are students who are training for lay ministry. Yet the central identity of the House is strong enough to allow for difference without being threatened by it.
I sat on a pew in chapel, and I asked myself: can I pray here?
Prior to ordination training, I studied part-time to be a licensed lay minister. I was delighted and thrilled to be doing that. But I also knew I was taking the scenic route to ordination, and at times I experienced more than a tinge of frustration. I enjoyed studying theology and wanted to give it my full attention but found it difficult to juggle the demands of a full-time job and the many other church commitments that I had assumed by that point. When I was selected for ordination training, I felt that full-time residential training was the right choice for me, even though that meant giving up my job, my flat, and stepping away from the communities which had been part of my life for many years. I wanted to immerse myself in both theological study and to enter deeply into a new routine of prayer and community life.
I decided to train for ministry at Westcott House because I wanted to be formed in the liberal-catholic tradition, and because I knew it would be a safe place for me. The proximity to London and the opportunities that the city of Cambridge offer for worship and study were also strong reasons. However, it was on an open day when I realised that Westcott was the right place to be. I sat on a pew in chapel, and I asked myself: can I pray here? Will I be comfortable, will this place help me to foster a close relationship with God? I had to listen to that niggling feeling, and work out for myself that the answer was yes. The college has enabled me to develop my prayer life, to rely on God and to feel the rhythm of the church seasons. I have been able to stretch my liturgical muscles and gain confidence to inhabit holy spaces. I have been challenged in new ways, to face my own weaknesses, learning to rely on God and on other people.
…bound together by a common mission of growing in holiness and wisdom
Training residentially naturally fills one with a sense of nerves but also excitement. Heading to Cambridge you worry about fitting in with the tradition and style of the college as well as the human complexities that living, worshipping and studying with fifty other people and their families might bring. However, Westcott as a community tears all of those fears down, it is a college that is bound together by a common mission of growing in holiness and wisdom, forming us into prayer- and people-centred priests.
The most distinctive part of the Westcott experience for me has been training alongside others, from fellow ordinands and their families to our dedicated, loving staff – lay and ordained. We grow in holiness and wisdom firstly through the love of God, but also the compassion, strength and support we receive in the community. Worshipping and praying together fills one with such strength. The joy of our Thursday community nights, as well as the various socials, bring extra fun to our studies and training. It helps break down any barriers you might feel between you and others on the first day.
As I think about the impact on my own ministry, Westcott’s life-giving rhythm of daily offices and eucharists give me the spiritual nourishment and connection to God that forms and deepens me in my vocation. It forming a lifelong habit of prayer that sustains my ministry and holds in my heart those whom I seek to serve. In the recent months of lockdown, these ‘holy habits’ have been vital to my own faith and peace of mind, as well as to the life of our community as we join together in spirit. Living and training in Cambridge comes with access to world-leading theological research and material. But it’s also a diverse city with many serious challenges, including homelessness and hunger, which Christian mission and discipleship are at the forefront of tackling.
As we begin to think about these issues and the future of our world, Westcott encourages us as ordinands to experience and partake in research and ministry that give insights to understand the debates of the future and where we as a church sit within them. The college staff, with their academic expertise and pastoral guidance, push us outside our comfort zones in terms of our theological thinking, challenge us as disciples to explore new ways of church and spirituality, as well as help us to grow into confident ministers of God, all while they support us mentally and spiritually.
Ultimately, the Westcott residential experience is made by all the amazing people who live, study and worship within its walls: staff, ordinands and their families. The uniqueness of each individual who brings their own gifts and talents have enriched me so much and made me a better Christian, minister and person. I’m so glad I took the leap to come here and I would encourage anyone to visit us, to see this loving community for yourself and consider how it will form you as a minister.