From the early middle ages Salisbury was an important centre for theological training. With its great Cathedral and Close attracting students and scholars from throughout Europe, Salisbury once seemed destined to become a university city such as Oxford or Cambridge.
Though this future was never realised, St Osmund’s 11th century vision to provide specialised training for ordinands ultimately led to the establishment of a theological college in the Cathedral Close for much of the 13th and 14th centuries.
The oldest part of Sarum College’s present building facing the Close dates from 1677 and is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren. Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury and confidant of the joint monarchs William and Mary, leased this building as a theological college.
Burnet supervised a small group of divinity students in an effort to redress what he perceived as arrogance among Oxbridge graduates, and to provide a foundation in theology and pastoral care.
Despite its distinction as the first post-Reformation theological college in the Church of England, Burnet’s School of Divinity did not survive the 18th century.
A classical university education therefore remained the cleric’s only preparation for professional life, though this was supplemented with theological reading, including Burnet’s own book, A Discourse on Pastoral Care (1692).
The case for theological training eventually gained ground. During the 1800s several colleges were founded, including Salisbury Theological College in 1860 by Walter Kerr Hamilton, Bishop of Salisbury from 1854 to 1869.
An anonymous donation made it possible for Hamilton to purchase the house at Sarum’s current site, 19 The Close, and 134 years of life for the College as a residential centre for Anglican ordinands began.
With its long-term role as a theological training college established, architect William Butterfield was commissioned to add accommodation to the building, including a library and a chapel.
In 1958, the Salisbury Theological College Trustees purchased the property freehold; in 1971, following a rationalisation of ordained ministry training, it became Salisbury and Wells Theological College.
Further decline in the number of England’s parochial clergy and the changing patterns of ministry made the need for residential training facilities in Salisbury redundant, however, and in 1994, the amalgamated College was also defunct.
With the prospect of closure looming, College leaders – inspired by the Christian ecumenism movement and conscious of the importance of Salisbury as an historic centre of western Christianity – decided instead to create a theological college for all.
The following year, Sarum College became an independent, ecumenical institution for further education and a home for ministerial training of the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme (STETS). Sarum has since also become the national administrative hub of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM).
STETS merged with Sarum College in 2015. Training for lay and ordained ministry is now delivered through the Sarum Centre for Formation in Ministry.