The Jesuits need to rediscover their historic bravery and cultural importance to keep Heythrop College open as a jewel at the heart of Christian academia, said Dr Sarah Coakley, a leading university professor, this week. She stressed there was still time to reconsider the decision to close the college in its current form from 2018.
Dr Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, was the author of a letter to The Times this week signed by 34 academics including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which called on the Jesuits to rethink and warned that the college in central London would be irreplaceable. Other signatories included Professor Roger Scruton of the University of Buckingham, Professor Janet Soskice of Cambridge and Professor Emerita Ursula King of Bristol.
The letter said the announcement of the closure of the 650-student college came as “a rude shock” and would be “a serious blow” to theological, religious and philosophical teaching in the UK. “It is indeed an irony that the Jesuit-led governing body should now seek to dissolve this powerfully effective accord with the University of London when it is unclear that the possible means of meeting the relevant problems have all been explored,” the letter continued.
Professor Coakley said she had been moved to organise the letter partly because she thought there was an overarching importance to Heythrop, over and above its importance in the Catholic community, that had not yet been acknowledged. Many Anglican ordinands, priests and laypeople, she added, studied at Heythrop, as well as those from other Christian and faith backgrounds, and the college was an important resource for the Church of England.
The problem seemed to be, she continued, that for some reason the Jesuits in Britain were failing in their historic characteristic of bravery and imagination and vision, but she believed this should and could be turned around. “Heythrop is doing something in this country that no one else is doing and no one else could do,” she said. “We need the top Jesuit leadership in this country to realise that. We need them to understand the academic contribution the college makes and we need them to understand that the college is saveable.”
Professor Coakley said she didn’t believe the biggest hurdle to the college’s continued existence was money. “Heythrop has been losing money but not the sort of money that means it’s impossible to turn around, with the right will and the right drive,” she commented. “I really do believe there is a different and a better path. At the moment fear is driving the way, and that’s what we have to change.”
Above: Heythrop College