Ely - drawn by SJG Brunning

I arrived at my destination just after noon, and walked up the hill from the station to the only triangular square I know. There was a very old elm in the centre of the triangular patch of grass, and a few seats scattered about. There were three other roads that led into the square besides the one by which I had arrived. The road straight ahead plainly took one to the cathedral, for there was the great West Tower apparently leaning slightly towards the road.

On the right, at the beginning of this road, there was a very substantial stone archway with rooms above, the whole structure obviously centuries old. Opposite this building there was a red brick mock Gothic building, which was on the corner of a road going to the left. Looking back from this corner, there was a row of houses on my right, and then another road leading away to the right. On the other side of this road there was a wall, a high wall, a slightly sinister looking wall with a pair of heavy oaken doors set in a stone archway. Beyond this wall there was a tall building of the same mock-Gothic style as the one at the other end of the square, but looking rather more sinister set as it was behind that high wall. It looked, as I thought, like a convent. I turned and went towards the Cathedral, thinking that the last building I has seen could not possibly be the one I was looking for. I had a little while to spare so I had a look round the Cathedral. When I came out, I knew the only thing to do was to ask the way to the Theological College, and I was directed back to the square, to that building in the corner, Before I went in I asked again which was the college. Yes, that was the place I sought.

I went in rather cautiously through those heavy oaken doors up the stone steps, along a loose gravel path which made a great noise as one walked on it, up the stone steps to the front door. I looked for a bell or knocker. There was none. I retraced my steps. This could not be the main door. Having looked for what I considered a more appropriate door, and failed to find one, I returned to the one I first approached. There was still no bell or knocker, so I knocked with my knuckles. I did so a second time; and a third. There was no answer, though I could hear what seemed to be a monotonous voice talking in the room on the left. I realised that a lecture was going on there. I plucked up my courage and opened the door. There was no one about. I looked along the corridors right and left. There was no one. The voice continued but I dared not interrupt. I ventured along the corridor to the left, and found a pantry. There was no one in it. I was about to knock on the door of the lecture room, when up the stairs came a small man with a bald head. I asked him if I was in the right place. Yes, I was. He would take me to the Principals's room. The Principal welcomed me, but just at that moment the Gospel bell sounded, and I was taken along to the Chapel for the midday office of Sext, which was normally said here at one o'clock. This was followed by lunch, and afterwards the Principal took me along to his study and gave me an outline of the routine of college life, but said he could not say when he could take me as he had no vacancy at present. He would write to me later. He then took me up to the Vice-Principal and I had a short talk with him. Having said goodbye, I departed and went to have another and longer look round the Cathedral. Then I returned home, hardly daring to hope for a vacancy.

About the middle of June I received a definite offer of a vacancy which had occurred through an unexpected withdrawal of one of the students. This I accepted, and started at the college on 27th July, on which day I arrived full of fear, but prepared to try to go through with three years of rigorous training. The following day was a Sunday and I enjoyed it very much. The next day I started lectures, and I found myself hopelessly at sea. I could not follow them; I could not take proper notes; and I came away more confused from each one I attended. Towards the end of the week, I had almost decided that I could not go on with the course, but before leaving I thought I should consult one of the priests on the staff. He gave me some very good advice, I made a general confession, spent the Saturday right away from the town, and returned refreshed and prepared to continue the course.

It might help you to understand why I found that first week a strain if I give an outline of the daily routine at a theological college. At 6:45 a.m. the rising bell is rung, and we have just over half an hour for our early morning toilet. Mattins is said by one of the students at 7:20, and Holy Communion is celebrated at 7:40. We have breakfast at 8:20 and then we are free until the bell is rung for meditation at 9:30. During this time, however, there are certain household chores such as making one's bed, to be done. The period for meditation lasts until about five minutes to ten, and the period from ten to one o'clock is given up to study, lectures, tutorial classes, etc. Then as I said before, midday prayers are said at one o'clock, followed at 1:20 by lunch. Normally, the afternoon is free until teatime at 4:30. The period between 5 o'clock and 6:30 is devoted to study, except for Mondays when there is a choir practice. At 6:30 Evensong is sung by one of the more senior students, two others acting as Cantors. Dinner is at seven, and study starts again at eight o'clock and goes on until 9:45 when Compline is said or sung according to the dignity of the day. There is an exception to this on Fridays when Compline is said at 9:15 and is followed by a devotional address by one of the staff or a visitor. The silence rule is observed from Compline until breakfast. This is the normal daily round, but on Saturdays, we are free after meditation until Compline at 9:45 p.m. On Sundays, it is obligatory to go to Holy Communion in the Cathedral at 8:15 a.m. It is also obligatory to attend Mattins and Evensong during the day.

It is possible to get used to the strict daily and weekly routine. The trouble comes when there are examinations to cope with as well. Tempers become frayed, there are sometimes quarrels, some decide that they cannot continue with the course. Fortunately, there are almost certainly some who have rather more patience than the rest and they do their best to pour oil on troubled waters. Further stresses occur during Lent when discipline becomes more stringent, and the silence rule is extended until after meditation. Fortunately again, there is usually a feast day during the term when the rules are relaxed and there is a general holiday.

Life in theological college is by no means easy, but it is a very good training for life in a parish. There is never time to do all the things which one ought to do. One's judgement is trained to choose those things which are the most important. The rule of prayer is more strict than the rule of work, and I am convinced that many pass their examinations by prayer rather than the amount of work they do. That is a good thing for a priest's task is to be a mediator between God and man, and man and God. It is more important that he should be able to lift up to God his own difficulties and those of his parishioners, and that he should be able to hear what God has to say about them. The other great thing which is learnt in a theological college is how to live with people of all sorts, some of whom one does not agree with. During my three years course I have begun to learn these lessons but I have a long way to go yet.

John Brunning wrote this article after completing his studies at Ely Theological College in 1949.