Oak Hill College.jpg
Oak Hill College

The public relations disaster that has engulfed Church of England theological college Oak Hill unfortunately has the feel of a text-book case for trainee journalists and communications officers.

Following the announcement of the resignation of Rev Jonathan Juckes, president (principal) of the conservative evangelical college in north London, he has had a septic tank of slime emptied all over him because he failed to respond to a press enquiry from Evangelicals Now.

Its story in April’s edition with the Agatha Christie-esque headline – ‘Oak Hill: Mystery surrounds events at Bible college’ – began: ‘Oak Hill spokesmen are remaining tight-lipped about what has been happening at the theological college after the institution’s President, Johnny Juckes, announced his intention to stand down. 

‘en has received confidential information originating from reliable and diverse sources which speak of considerable conflict, with one using highly colourful language relating to warfare.

‘However, the College Council and Juckes himself have declined to respond, insisting they have nothing to add to a statement posted on the college website.’

The paper laid it on thick about how hard it had tried to get a comment:

‘Some days before this edition’s deadline, en gave Juckes and (college council chairman Jeremy) Anderson the opportunity to state publicly that the reported claims were untrue and to respond, but they did not do so, saying they had nothing to add to the existing website statement.’

Sounding a bit like a media statement from a football club, that, dated 10 March 2023, said: ‘Having been in the role for over five years, some weeks ago Johnny asked the College Council to begin looking for a successor to develop and oversee the College’s strategy for the next season.’

Juckes was quoted as saying: ‘Although I will be leaving, I will be praying for God’s next leader for Oak Hill, a fresh leader for the next five years, who will bring new energy and different gifts to the task that lies ahead.’

What could Oak Hill have done to avoid being bathed in media manure? How about if, instead of stonewalling, it had offered EN an on-the-record interview with Juckes and Anderson? The paper could have been asked to supply the specific allegations from its sources (no names, no pack drill) and then its editor, Rev David Baker, with the chairman of EN’s trustees, Rev Adrian Reynolds, invited to the college for the interview, of which an audio recording should have been made.

Of course, transparency carries a cost and mistakes may well have had to be admitted to. But at least the college leadership would have had the opportunity to put their side of the story. As the late Queen put it: ‘Recollections may vary.’

But now, as Juckes serves out his time until July, he and the college face a potential story in May’s edition and possibly beyond with unattributed claims because, at the foot of its story, EN has solicited more off-the-record material: ‘Are you a student, staff member or someone else with information? Feel free to contact en directly – confidentiality is assured.’

Johnny Juckes, 62, resigned, it would appear voluntarily, some weeks before the EN story came out and at present the reason is not known. Before becoming Oak Hill chief in 2018, he gave long service, nearly 20 years, as vicar of a parish in East Yorkshire. Is the idea that he was some kind of Saddam Hussein at the college actually credible?  Or is it off with the fairies but has been allowed to gain some social media traction because of a botched comms job?

The college leadership can very possibly redeem the situation by issuing a full and transparent public statement following the EN story. Supporters of the college will no doubt hope it can repair the damage to its reputation, arguably caused by the tendency among English conservative evangelicals to want to control the narrative or, if they can’t, to batten down the hatches.

Regrettably over this text-book public relations own goal, being cagey with the press does not seem to have played well for the college.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK. He was an ordinand at Oak Hill from 1993 to 1996.