The Wesley Room

Few college spaces can evoke Lincoln’s history as powerfully as the Wesley Room.

The Wesley Room

Few college spaces can evoke Lincoln’s history as powerfully as the Wesley Room. Refurbished through the generosity of the American Methodist Committee to commemorate the bicentennial of John Wesley’s admission to a college fellowship in 1726, it rivals the chapel and hall as the most frequented Lincoln locale. Staircase Five is now regarded as his more likely home, but entries in the visitors' book attest to the Wesley Room’s hallowed status in the evangelical mind, and to its impact on a much wider audience beyond.

Predictably, as an eternal student of eighteenth-century Britain, I have always warmed to the prospect of this Georgian time-capsule in the heart of college. Its resplendent Chippendale furniture sets a grand scene amid polished linenfold panelling, creating a wonderful frame for the display of its array of Wesleyana. While impressive, however, these historic materials have never been the room's primary appeal for me. More than merely capturing an epoch in collegiate history, it resonates with a more enduring ideal and practice - the Oxford tutorial.

 As a fresher historian in Michaelmas 1983, I had the good fortune to be taught by the late Paul Langford in this room. At first, as with every other aspect of Oxford, I was rather daunted by these surroundings. The double-oaked doors did not seem to invite, and the snap of their clattering latch on closure suggested no easy exit. On a wintry day, the panels rendered the room dark and forbidding, the half-light only pierced by the hawkish eyes of Wesley from every corner of the room. The groaning shelves of Wesleyan works lectured me on the callowness of my own learning, and the slipperiness of the leathered seats confirmed an uncomfortable suspicion that I did not fit in.

With time, the room changed, and so did I. In common with its titular occupant, Paul proved a remarkable tutor, encouraging all our historical adventures with warm words and exacting standards. A penny dropped, and I realized that the tutorial was an environment in which both tutor and student worked in tandem to the best resolution of the problem at hand. I could not aspire to the sheer clarity and precision of Paul's thinking, but I saw that the tutorial could provide a forum in which I could listen and contribute. Trusting this space, I began to appreciate the essential calm of this Georgian study, and looked forward with anticipation to the next opportunity to wrestle with Whigs and Jacobins until the Yarmouth clock chimed the hour. I never quite managed to gain an easy purchase on those chairs, but it was here that I found my feet in Oxford.

Many years later I was allocated the Wesley Room when standing in for Paul as a college tutor. Familiar apprehensions re-surfaced as I moved in, and the room only seemed to bring home the serious responsibilities of my role. Fortunately, they were soon banished by the appearance of the first brace of students, who bounded through the doors, ready to engage and to think. Unfazed by their new and august surroundings, they reminded me that a few chairs and a problem should suffice for the eager student and expectant tutor. 

These treasured experiences have taught me that even the most imposing of rooms permit successive generations of users to mould their space and to impose their own meanings. The Wesley Room, for all the stories it can tell, coveys the intimacy and common purpose which has sustained Lincoln's community for centuries, and long may the tutorial remain at its heart.

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