Fire and brimstone! College principal says we're all going to hell

A theological college is riven by a bitter religious discrimination case. No wonder the principal says we're all going to hell. By Andy McSmith
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The Independent Online

The trials and tribulations of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, have been many in recent times. The bad times, the arguments and the fire and brimstone all began when the college principal, the Rev Richard Turnbull, gave Britain a startling warning to the effect that 95 per cent of the population was bound for hell and damnation "unless the message of the Gospel is brought to them".

Embarrassing newspaper headlines followed that address to religious conservatives, and soon there were blazing rows in cloisters which were more used to the tranquil silent study of theological texts.

For months hardline evangelicals, sticking to biblical chapter and verse, battled with liberals over issues such as hell and homosexuality. Then Elaine Storkey, 64, a female theologian at Wycliffe and contributor to BBC's religious slots, had an incendiary "thought for the day". Dr Storkey, who had been forced to leave the college after crossing swords in the religious wars with Mr Turnbull, decided to demand compensation and sue the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, the college president.

The involvement of Bishop Jones in a lawsuit now caps an extraordinary period in the 130 year-old college's history. As the rest of Oxford has looked on in a mixture of amusement and concern, Wycliffe Hall appears to have imploded under the pressure of wildly conflicting theologies, allegations of aggressive behaviour, and a flurry of legal action.

And on it goes. Dr Storkey has accepted around 20,000 from the trustees of the college after it was acknowledged that she had been unfairly dismissed. But she clearly does not intend to leave it there. Instead she has accused Bishop Jones, in his formal capacity as college president, of religious discrimination. But the real target of her ire is the now notorious Mr Turnbull.

Dr Storkey is the chairman of Fulcrum, an evangelical pressure group which supports female priests and denounces homophobia as a sin. Her calm words have soothed millions of listeners to BBC radio's Today programme as they ingest her Thought for the Day over their muesli.

Mr Turnbull, who became principal of Wycliffe Hall in 2005, chairs the Church of England Evangelical Council, which has led the opposition to the ordination of gay clergy. As his deputy, Mr Turnbull appointed the Rev Simon Vibert, co-author of a paper which says women should not give religious teaching to men. Since these two took over at Wycliffe Hall, six staff have resigned or been sacked, including Dr Storkey, who was Mr Vibert's senior research fellow. Mr Turnbull's defenders say he has brought an energetic management style to a college badly in need of shaking up. Liberals among Church of England clergy say that he is trying to turn Wycliffe Hall into a training camp for fundamentalists.

This could turn into a nightmare for the public-spirited citizens who make up the employment tribunal in Reading. Yesterday they held a pre-hearing into the case. After the college had admitted that Dr Storkey was unfairly dismissed, the tribunal chairman, Robin Lewis, adjourned the hearing until June, and pleaded with the two sides to settle. Otherwise, the tribunal members could have the awkward job of deciding the rights and wrongs of a religious dispute.

One man looking on wearily will be the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who will be presiding in July and August over the Lambeth Conference, where he is likely to face a challenge to his authority from hardliners, who want to end what they see as the Church's condoning of homosexuality.

When swords are crossed over this issue even the battle of Wycliffe Hall is likely to seem tame.