Friday, 13 April 2012

Kelham Theology - teaching methods


Kelham Hall was the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission - a Church of England monastic order which was founded by Fr Herbert (HH) Kelly in 1894.

SSM grew to become one of the biggest and most important of the men's religious societies in the C of E, and provider of perhaps the best theological education that the church has ever known.

All this before a catastrophic collapse of demand through the 1960s and the closure of Kelham Hall in the early 1970s.

(A small and scattered residue of professed members of SSM still remains.)


I have been reading SSM: history of the Society of Sacred Mission by Alistair Mason (1993) - I will abbreviate this as SSM-Mason - which I found to be a superb book.

One of its revelations was the detailed account of Kelham's course in theology, which it provided to young men aiming-at ordination; who lived under annual monastic vows in a residential and immersive environment.

The quality of the Kelham education in theology was remarkable.


The Kelham course was better devised, and covered more, than any other course available. Also the students thought harder than ordinary students elsewhere. SSM-Mason, p89

...the long SSM course... was a great achievement. Very ordinary students did more and better theology there than at any other institution in the history of Anglicanism. SSM-Mason p93.


What were their methods at Kelham Hall?

1. In the first place, the course was designed as a free education for a skilled working class intake - the children of artisans who had not been to Public (i.e. private) schools, and had not attended universities - the boys usually began in their mid-teens, and as young as 15. The course therefore included (but was not restricted to) relatively elementary academic teaching (e.g. teaching from scratch, from zero knowledge, Latin and Greek).

2. But within this group Kelham was very selective; accepting only a small fraction of applicants and expelling about half of those they did accept (for bad behaviour, or for academic failures).

3. The course was long - six or seven years. This meant that the students had plenty of time to master difficult content and to go through a very large and high level curriculum thoroughly and without haste - and yet with plenty of time for many and frequent daily hours of attendance at religious services, for household chores, and organized sports. Every hour of every day was organized, pretty much. 

4. The method of teaching seems to have been, on weekdays, as follows:

- An hour per day of classroom training, e.g. in Latin and Greek.
- An hour lecture per day - especially systemtic theology/ dogmatics and the complete history of the Christian Church. These lectures were reproduced in typescripts and collected into booklets.
- Five hours per day of book work to read-up the subjects of the day's lecture and to prepare...
- One essay per week, which was read and marked by staff.


My conclusion is that excellent academic results at an advanced level are possible with students of only moderate natural ability and with very little background, cheaply and with few facilities; but that this requires what seems nowadays a very tough - almost 'military' - regime, and that most students be considerably younger than is normal at present.