Bringing theology home to the academy

BBI Dietrich Bonhoeffer proffered that God would be Lord of the World but that denominational religion had turned him into every denomination’s local branch manager. The same might well be said of theology, at least in the Australian context. Owing to an excessive secularism, the founders of Australian higher education (most of them ironically devout church folk) moved to ban the discipline of theology from our first universities' curricula. In a classic disposal of the baby with the bathwater, it seemed they thought this would somehow limit the power of the churches in the practical governance of the university.

The practical effect on Australian higher education was to denude its universities by discarding one of their oldest and most respected disciplines, leaving them with even less hope of emulating the European counterparts which they so wished to be like. The practical effect on theology was to denude its potential for maximal scholarship by reducing it too often to a veritable backyard industry for each denomination's training and induction purposes. Hence, the reference made above to Bonhoeffer's Lord of the World who is reduced to a local manager. In similar fashion, theology, which belongs firstly to the world and its peoples, became too often the plaything of institutional self-justification.

The Anglican Diocese of Newcastle was one of the first to move to challenge this situation. Emboldened by the Menzies Government's move to re-establish theology in the university system and his Government's Martin Report (1964) that advocated its restoration, the Newcastle Diocese convened a conference (The Morpeth Conference, 1966) to respond to the Government's challenge. In the context of a gathering of church folk and academics, including some from the then fledgling University of Newcastle, James Housden, Bishop of Newcastle, argued that theology in Australia needed to be returned to its rightful place as a discipline among its sibling disciplines in the country's public (and private) universities.

While it took some time to achieve, Housden's vision came to pass when, in 2007, the University of Newcastle entered its first students into a new Bachelor of Theology program and, in 2008, when its first academic chair was filled by Professor John McDowell, lately of Edinburgh. Appropriate to the history that sat behind the move, the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle supported the establishment of the Morpeth Chair of Theology which Professor McDowell has filled. With the affiliation between the University and The Broken Bay Institute (BBI), theology at Newcastle will move quickly from being a small to a large discipline. The mutual benefit is in the fact that the University gains from the experience and reach of one of Australia's premier distance theological institutions while BBI gains from the greater resourcing, inter-disciplinary enrichment and research strength of one of the country's top ten research universities.

It has been suggested, but surely not seriously, that the public university's prime motive in including theology among its disciplines might be around financial benefit. While universities, like the rest of society, must do due diligence on the financial ramifications of their decisions, the fact remains that the university that was driven by concerns of financial gain alone would be unlikely to see its gold mine in theology. The way teaching and research dollars flow, the far greater return is in the science end of the spectrum, not least in an era which is about to see a university's research strength count for even more in its regular funding regime. Hence, a university that has choices would be far better served financially by building up its sciences at the expense of its humanities, including theology.

In a word, the decision made by both The Broken Bay Institute and the University of Newcastle has been impelled by a commitment to the good of theology and to the betterment of higher education. As illustrated above, it has been a commitment designed to righting a wrong that was done to both higher education and theology in the troubled sectarian times of nineteenth century Australia. It is a commitment to provide the best possible offerings in theological education and formation and so, in an environment of enhanced resourcing and research strength, to assure a healthy future for Australian theology.


Terry Lovat Professor Terence Lovat is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education and Arts) at The University of Newcastle, Australia


Gerard GoldmanDr Gerard Goldman is Director/Principal of The Broken Bay Institute, Australia.



Topic tags: theology, BBI, Newcastle University, academy, Bonhoeffer



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