This is the last in a three-part mini series on theology colleges.
The Cathedral square
I’m going to be totally honest here: the only reason I went to visit Cranmer was because my DDO told me to. I am a good Cornish maid, born with the (slightly damp) summer sun on my skin and the gulf stream lapping at my toes. Cranmer is in Durham – Durham, as in, north of York, Durham, County Durham, as in, all that’s stopping you from being Scotland is a few ancient saints and a handful of villages with names like ‘Otterburn’. That is how desperate their lives are, readers. It’s so cold up there they burn otters.
So however many times people exclaimed, “Oh, Durham – it’s so beautiful!” all I saw was a chattering of teeth and a blank, frozen gaze. I fully expected to arrive on the back of a wolf-sled, surrounded by white walkers.
Oh my word. Turns out Durham is beautiful. I crossed over a wide bridge and gaped up at golden medieval stone, glazed in sunlight – a castle! A freaking castle! On a river!
This is not the castle – this is Durham Cathedral; also on the river, also beautiful.
Not a white walker to be seen. I strolled* along the river bank, up behind the warm stone of the Cathedral, onto a curved, cobbled street by St John’s College. Here some confusion. I knew Cranmer was nearby – all the maps told me it was next to St John’s College. And here was St John’s College. But where was Cranmer? After ten minutes of bewildered searching I eventually realised that St John’s College…was…Cranmer. They are one and the same. Or, at least, Cranmer resides within St John’s and they form some sort of symbiotic entity. Don’t ask me to explain it properly: the important parts are that Cranmer students are university members, with the free run of college grounds that implies, and St John’s and Cranmer share a bar (cheap student drinks!).
*Pantingly heaved up hill
Once I’d finally found my way inside and been scooped up by a friendly and hospitable ordinand, we toddled across the road to the chapel for evening prayer. Knowing Cranmer to be evangelical, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but wafts of incense hung in the chapel and we were greeted by a white albed ordinand and the strains of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, so I figured we were there for anglo-catholic hour. The Tim Hughes guitarist threw me a little, but when our service leader knelt before a low table with a giant old Bible in front of him, I settled into my pew (in the round), comfortable I knew what was coming.
Not so. After the first few sentences, our reader suddenly stood up, strode to the middle, and proclaimed the passage, word perfect, with the passion and presence of Henry V in, well, Henry V. The aforementioned Tim Hughes guitarist wove subtle eastern chords around him as he declared the arrival of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’s court. We shivered as he painted gold leaf and spices around us, and simmered when he described the dusty, shimmering train of camels and jewels from across the desert.
Startled awake by this unexpected drama, the service continued with a comparatively normal exegetical sermon (another ordinand), followed by a period of intercessions in the chancel. Once again, I settled into the familiar use of tealights and pebbles for interactive prayer. Soothing familiarity. Soothing calm chapel. Soothing, and quiet – until SOMEONE LITERALLY CAUGHT FIRE.
It was like a second pentecost. I thought tongues of fire had descended from on high. Perhaps this was the beginning of revival? A new age for the north. Maybe God was miraculously reaching down and setting us alight with power for mission!
No. No it was just someone literally burning on their head. A poor girl whose red hair got suddenly and dramatically much, much more red when she leant over a tealight. After a screaming sort of upside-down head dance to extinguish the flames, the ashen-faced service leader apologised profusely to her for his dangerous anglo-catholic candles. Back in her place, the shocked, singed ordinand turned to me. “Welcome to Cranmer,” she intoned.
Cranmer worship is genuinely a mixture of different traditions. The students I met ranged from conservative evangelical to charismatic catholic and everywhere in between. Nobody seemed to feel the need to differentiate between ‘types’ of ordinand, because it was a proper mash up of southerners, northerners, over-educated, hardly educated, dads, young singles, metalheads and cassock-clad traditionalists. Nobody seemed to notice that anyone else was different. The worship reflected this in that during my short stay there (Thursday afternoon to Friday lunch time) I took in contemporary sung worship, contemplative silence, colouring in, incense, celtic liturgy, candles and fingering pebbles. Every morning is Common Worship morning prayer, and evening prayer includes All Age Worship, a service of the Word, the eucharist and small discipleship groups.
Cranmer’s evangelical heritage gives it an emphasis on mission and placements, exemplified by its contextually-based ‘urban track’ where ordinands live and work in deprived urban parishes while studying. Ordinands following the normal track spend eight weeks on block placements which can range from the local hospital to Hong Kong, San Francisco or anywhere else your heart may take you. As they describe, the aim is ‘to ensure theology is rooted in the gritty reality of contemporary ministry and mission.’ This earthy grounding is complemented by Cranmer’s close links with the best theology department in the country (according to government statistics). Durham University’s theology department is two minutes from St John’s College, and the library and resources are open to all Cranmer students, regardless of whether they study for the University degree or Cranmer’s own Common Award.
All in all, I found Cranmer a wonderful combination of down-to-earth friendliness and unpretentious godliness. Everything from their worship to their placement scheme reflects their genuine commitment to diversity, and their location in the far north, in an excellent university, means they truly get it.
Besides which, they gave me presents:
- Breathtaking location in an ancient and beautiful city.
- Links to an excellent theology department.
- Genuinely diverse, without seeming to notice or make a fuss about it.
- Happy clappy worship for those what want it, mixture of other bits for those what need it, plenty of catholics in cassocks roaming the corridors.
- Part of St John’s College – so undergrads everywhere. Pro/con, depending on your perspective!
- Generally younger student body than other colleges.
- No quad! Makes a surprising difference – no ‘centre’ other than the (slightly cramped) common room. On the other hand – the Cathedral square is flanked by the theology department and is thirty seconds away.
- It’s in the north. Bitter cold vs cheap beer: your call.