Ollie Phipps is a first-year ordinand based in Kent and studying part-time at West Malling Abbey, St Augustine’s College of Theology. We asked him to tell us a bit about himself, and what being a student here means to him.
A bit about me
I was born into a Christian household and have been a lifelong churchgoer, becoming part of the fabric of the Church – leading youth and other groups. When I started my nursing training, over 20 years ago now, I started seeing a lot of death and severe illness; so many young people dying. It made me question my faith, and I began to wonder where God was in all this suffering.
Then in 2008, I had a strange experience. I was part of an Alpha course for men, and one of the guys on the course became a good friend. One day when I was a charge nurse, I was caring for a man who was dying, and talking to his wife. Just after the man died, my friend from Alpha appeared outside my office. It turned out that the couple I’d been caring for were his parents. The next day was Holy Spirit Day at Alpha, and I spent the time talking to my friend. He and other friends asked me if I’d ever considered going into ministry, and it began to become clear that my vocation lay somewhere other than in nursing.
Then other people started asking whether I’d ever thought about being a vicar. And once, at my church in Bristol, the Bishop was talking about vocation. He said something about, “people here who know that this applies to them,” and looked right at me. I kept getting these signs.
Having spoken to my vicar, I started to explore ordination, but at that point my wife wanted to leave her law career and train as a nurse. So for the time being, I carried on nursing and studied part time for a masters and PGCE. Later, having reached the top of my career ladder in Bristol, we moved to Kent, where my wife is from. I now work partly in the NHS and partly as an academic at Canterbury Christ Church University. Shortly after, her mother died. I spent time praying and talking with family and friends, and an old vicar friend came back into our life – and ended up conducting the funeral.
He asked me, “What are you doing about your vicar stuff?” And off it went again! No one is surprised that I’m doing this.
Why St Augustine’s College of Theology?
When I began to explore ordination and looked for a college, I Googled local theology colleges and was surprised to discover I lived just around the corner from one in West Malling.
Although I looked at others, St Augustine’s came highly recommended by other students I knew, and when I visited the Abbey and spent time there, I noticed that the majority of students were like me – mature, with life experience. I knew I’d fit in there, and that the part-time study pattern would fit with my NHS and academic work. It’s a lovely, warm place, and, being just around the corner from home, was a no-brainer.
How is your course helping to shape your leadership?
The course modules are fantastic. With things like Bible Studies and Church History, for example, I thought I knew a lot, but studying has helped me understand why we do things the way we do in the Church of England. It’s enabled me to, in a good way, take apart and rebuild what I thought I knew.
Every residential is based on a different liturgical theme so you gain a variety of experience. Before Covid, the ability to meet up and have the residential weekends has been just as important as classroom time. I would describe it as a blended learning approach, which means that you have some of the responsibility for learning yourself. It’s not just about turning up and listening. The preparation you do is as important as going to lectures, and they guide you in how to do that.
Within the sessions, you get to meet a variety of people, not just ordinands, but also lay ministers and independent students, so there’s a really wide range of questions. That’s one of the important things about formation; meeting people, not just academic study. It’s not the college that forms you, but they guide you as you are formed by God and the Holy Spirit.
I’ll probably be going down the self-supporting ministry route to begin with, but I think ultimately my calling is towards stipendiary ministry with a chaplaincy element – in a hospital or hospice – where my experience can also be of value, but I’m waiting for God to guide me.
See here for details about studying with us.