Our origins lie in the early 1990s, when a group of Cambridge theologians, religious sisters, friars and priests got together with leaders from the ecumenical Cambridge Theological Federation (CTF) to create a new Catholic college for lay theological education. They had two purposes:
- To open up to Catholics the riches of theology for Christian ministry and mission that already existed in Cambridge
- To bring a Catholic perspective to the CTF.
A foundation for Catholic women
From these twin purposes, the focus of the new institute emerged: the theological education and formation of lay Catholics, and more especially women, for Christian discipleship and ministry. It was intended to be a prophetic foundation, firmly rooted in the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, who saw the theological education of the laity as indispensable to the Church’s mission in the modern world. It was welcomed by women who were looking for theological training to enhance the work they were already doing in their parishes, at work and in family life.
The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology was formally launched in October 1993.
Initially we made our home in Lady Margaret House, the convent of the Canonesses of St Augustine, which had served as the chaplaincy for Catholic women university students from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Soon, however, we outgrew the available space at Lady Margaret House and moved to Wesley House, the Methodist college of the Federation, in 1995. Living and working here enabled the Institute to become fully integrated into the CTF.
Under the leadership of Sister Bridget Tighe, the Institute began to fulfil its founders’ vision, despite a lack of funds. Numbers rose from two students to more than twenty, and space was once more an issue.
So it seemed answer to prayer when the Canonesses of St Augustine, who would have to leave Lady Margaret House at the end of 1999-2000 academic year, gave the Institute first refusal of the property.
Nevertheless, the Institute had no more than £6,000 in the bank, and the property was valued at £1.8 million. It seemed madness to even embark on an appeal for funds, but, with the support of Bishop Peter Smith of East Anglia, the Trustees decided to try.
Janet Lash took on the role of Chair of Appeal and Baroness Patricia Scotland agreed to be its Patron. In 2000 the Institute moved into one half of Lady Margaret House as tenants of the Canonesses, and our work continued. This included significant new courses, the development of the Mary Ward and Margaret Beaufort Lectures, and the establishment of the Cardinal Hume Visiting Scholarship.
Little short of a miracle, and thanks to the generosity of many individuals and grant-making trusts, Janet Lash and Sr Bridget Tighe handed the Canonesses a cheque by the deadline of December 2003 and received the keys to the whole building.
Owning Lady Margaret House has given us the freedom to develop our charism and its distinctive purpose. We can now offer hospitality to a wide range of individuals and groups; open our doors for retreats and Quiet Days, public lectures and seminars and create a community of study and prayer through the stability and identity that comes with owning our own building, garden and chapel.
Much has been accomplished. Student numbers have grown and the Institute accepted its first doctoral students onto the Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology. The Diocese of East Anglia has invited the Institute to act as its Centre for the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies. We have entered into a partnership with Catholic colleges in East Africa.
However, we are not complacent. We remain aware of our reliance on God’s grace for all that has been and is to be.