Education and the use of money
It is our custom at the end of each calendar year to give thanks for the Founders and Benefactors of Wesley House. This year we were privileged to welcome the President of Conference, The Revd Michaela Youngson to preach to a full house of staff, students, friends and donors and to help us honour the vision and generosity of our founder Michael Gutteridge as we dedicated the inscription to the new academic building named after him donated by his great-grandson Peter Gutteridge and his wife Rosie.
Michael Gutteridge (1842-1935) was a draper who traded out of Naples. In 1911, he promised the Wesleyan Conference that he would endow a college in Cambridge and challenged others to match his own funds. His conviction was that the Wesleyan Church needed an educated ministry to match rising standards of education in Edwardian England and so be able to offer the kind of preaching and apologetics that would keep pace with developments in philosophy and science, and the kind of theological thinking that would be able to engage with increasingly complex social and ethical questions and help to shape society for the better.
The story goes that Michael Gutteridge’s generous offer was warmly received providing the college might be founded in Oxford – Oxford having a much better Wesleyan pedigree than Cambridge which John never visited due to the objections of the Puritan clergy in the town at the time. Michael Gutteridge was convinced however that his vision was a vision from God and reputedly answered, ‘The Lord says Cambridge or nothing!’
Michael Gutteridge’s reaction perhaps evidences the kind of stubborn determination that manages to run a successful business and establish a successful college but the choice of Cambridge was also prescient in terms of the scientific and philosophical developments of the last century with the work of people such as Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Ernest Rutherford, Watson and Crick and Stephen Hawking redefining the disciplines of philosophy, economics, physics and biology and making Cambridge the source of a string of new technologies that have changed the world from the way we communicate (the invention of the computer) to the way we think about human identity (the structure of DNA) and the origins of the universe (Big Bang Theory).
Such developments have presented and continue to present serious challenges to Christian thinking and the values by which society lives – challenges as fundamental as those presented by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the nineteenth century. It remains a live question in the minds of many around the world whether it is possible to believe in evolution and in the authority of the Bible. Many British children reject Christian faith before it ever has a chance to be considered because this narrative seems to contradict that of Genesis whilst the popular atheism of Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene convinces new generations that even altruism can have no foundation in transcendent love but only in a biological determinism.
Michael Gutteridge knew that cultural change is driven – at least in part – by the kinds of discoveries and theories that emerge from world class universities. He was not opposed to cultural change nor to science and technology but he knew that a church that fails to engage with new ideas and ways of thinking will not be able to hold its young people in a credible faith nor have the credibility to sit at the tables where public social and ethical decisions are made, nor offer a Christian witness that is intelligible to contemporary minds and lives.
He used his money to help support the creation of a church leadership who could help the Methodist people to think otherwise… to be able to read and dialogue with new ideas and help them either to integrate these into their thinking (the Big Bang Theory creates a much more hospitable environment for Christian faith than any notion that the Earth always existed for it posits a beginning) or to imagine otherwise (thinking people must observe that cultural values vary and yet a thorough going relativism is not the only response… might not the very existence of the human desire and ability to imagine a better world be evidence of our being made in the image of good God?).
Education as Mission
Michael Gutteridge was not afraid of the changing world in which he was living and he wanted to invest in church leaders who would have the confidence to lead not only within the church but in public life as well. Neither was he squeamish about money or the need to raise it because he understood that the costs of not investing in an education adequate to the task would be much higher than the cost of raising the funds.
His explicit focus in the documents that surround the original Trust Deed of the College written 100 years ago was on the value of education for the British context and yet from early on in the college’s life students were being prepared for overseas stations and being received from abroad where the value and importance of investment in theological education is well understood.
Before Christmas the director of Research, Andrew Stobart, and I were present at the joint Conference of African Methodist Theological Institutions and Higher Education Institutions in Johnnesburg. We were there to interview students for the PhD Scholarship programme we have developed in partnership with Africa University, Zimbabwe, designed to help build capacity in theological education not only at that University but across African Methodist seminaries and universities. During the Conference we were addressed by The Revd Dr Kim Cape, General Secretary of the United Methodist Church’s Board of Higher Education and Ministry that has part funded the scholarship programme. She told the story of how, during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a prominent layman had been imprisoned for challenging the failure of the DRC President to call free elections at the end of his term. In 2016 she and Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the Board of Global Missions, visited the Congolese ambassador to Zimbabwe to plead for his release. During the course of the conversation the ambassador observed that whilst America’s first tactic for trying to stablilise Africa might be arms, the most important power in the hands of the West is the power to sponsor education. Investment in education he explained leads not only to life chances for individuals but to economic growth, civil participation and to the emergence of other options than ways of life predicated on violence, corruption and fatalistic religion.
The challenges in an African context around poverty, conflict and governance may differ from those in the UK – though poverty, polarisation and failures in leadership are all too apparent here also – and yet the need for education in general and ethical education in particular are desperate everywhere – not least to help re-orient the world’s attention towards food insecurity – one of the key consequences of climate change and drivers of mass migration and conflict.
Education, as John Wesley knew, is key to the mission of the Church – for the sake of human dignity and happiness as individuals and as communities – as well as for the sake of our growing in grace and the knowledge and love of the God who made us.
So, at our Founders and Benefactors service every year we give thanks for the vision of Michael Gutteridge and for the generosity of many generous men and women over the last century who have given regularly, left legacies, or made one off gifts to support that vision. And we pray for new donors who might catch the vision and help us to continue to offer a difference-making education to Methodist people in Britain and around the world.
This article was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 18th January 2019