Why universities welcome theological colleges


CSU School of TheologyTheological education continues to demonstrate a remarkable degree of institutional fluidity. This year has already witnessed the imminent closure of the Brisbane College of Theology (BCT), with its component parts moving in different directions. The Catholic and Uniting Church components entered into a relationship with Australian Catholic University (ACU), and the Anglican with Charles Sturt University (CSU). Now two other theological consortia are facing challenges of different sorts. They point to the continued repercussions of a changing regulatory environment on the sector.

The Adelaide College of Divinity (ACD), founded thirty years ago, is now essentially defunct. Some twelve months ago its constituent colleges, Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church made a decision whereby the Catholic and Anglican Colleges would have minimal involvement with the consortium structure. This would leave it largely in the hands of the Uniting Church college. They would focus their own energies with the ongoing relationship with Flinders University. This relationship had grown more substantial over the years and offered their students access to government funding, which was not directly available to students in the purely ACD awards.

Now it appears that the Anglican College (St Barnabas’) will affiliate with CSU. This is part of a move by a number of Anglican dioceses to consolidate their theological endeavours under a single provider with a single, largely Anglican, curriculum. The Canberra Anglican college, St Mark’s Theological College, after brief stints with the Australian College of Theology and Sydney College of Divinity (SCD), joined CSU in 1997. It has since subsumed the United Theological College at North Parramatta (Uniting Church), and more recently St Francis Theological College, the Anglican college of the BCT. Now the Adelaide Anglicans are also signing up with CSU. As such the ACD will no longer be a functioning consortium and will need to recreate itself institutionally if it is to survive scrutiny from its accrediting agencies.

The irony in both Brisbane and Adelaide is that the two Anglican colleges have limited faculty resources. They will look to their previous consortia partners to assist in the delivery of a full theological program to their students. Their credibility as theological providers rode on their ecumenical relationships with Catholic and Uniting Church colleges. A relationship with remote St Mark’s/CSU in Canberra does not put lecturers in front of students.

Various Anglican movements are now also affecting the SCD. For many years the Anglican diocese of Newcastle maintained a small operation at Morpeth, training its ministers for various externally assessed awards. After a brief flirtation with St Mark’s/CSU the operation was closed and the property sold. The money has been used to fund a chair in theology at Newcastle University, creating a new theological provider within the university sector (alongside ACU, CSU, Flinders, and Murdoch). It is now public knowledge that the Broken Bay Institute (BBI), the theological college of the Catholic Broken Bay diocese, will be affiliating with Newcastle University.

BBI began life as the Centre for Christian Spirituality at Randwick under the leadership of then Fr David Walker. When he was made Bishop of Broken Bay he moved its operations to his new diocese and renamed it appropriately. It has been with the SCD since about 1994. In that time it has grown from a relatively small operation to be one of the larger colleges of the SCD, generating about 15% of their student load. A key factor in the move was the compact signed between the Anglican diocese of Newcastle and the Catholic dioceses of Maitland-Newcastle and Broken Bay.

The departure of such a significant college from the SCD will have significant financial implications for that consortium. Fresh on the heels of a relatively successful audit by the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA), the SCD is now faced with a major problem, one prefigured by AUQA. Among its many recommendations it noted the urgent need for the SCD to 'articulate the membership profile required for its survival as a viable ecumenical theological institution.' It also noted that 'unplanned changes in membership may have major consequences for the interdenominational and ecumenical character of the organisation or may risk SCD’s financial viability'. The departure of BBI was hardly planned. Over the past twenty five years the SCD has been something of a revolving door with colleges entering and leaving on a regular basis. While this was tolerable in a previous regulatory environment, with the increasing cost of central administration it is no longer sustainable.

The movement to the university sector of course restores the ancient place of theology as a discipline within a university. But there are dangers in such a move. Theological colleges should be under no illusion that the interest of most of these universities extends beyond the financial. The colleges bring student numbers, and their theologians contribute relatively well to research outputs with minimal investment from the university. Apart from ACU they have no particular interest in theology for its own sake. A decline in student numbers or changes in government funding formulae for research could lead to a colder relationship. The last twelve months has proved tumultuous in the theological sector. The future is not likely to be less so.

Neil OrmerodDr Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology, is Director of the Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Australian Catholic University, Mount St Mary Campus.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Strange indeed is the notion that government (taxpayers rendering unto Caesar) should have any financial connection whatever to theological research.

Casey Collins | 18 November 2009  

My apologies to my colleagues at Notre Dame Unviersity Australia for not menitioning them as one of the universities offering a theology program. My attention was focussed on institutions receiving government funding.Like ACU they have an intrinsic reason for offering theological awards

Neil Ormerod | 18 November 2009  

This summary of how theological education has sought the university environment omits the amalgamation of Anglican and Uniting Studies at Murdoch university. On one hand this was an important financial move since the denominations had trouble funding their own colleges, on the other hand it has given much control over to a secular institution. This means that the priority of the churches has been diluted by the university, particularly in the selection of staff.

But most worrying of all is the fragmentation of the theological student body. The strength of the seminary model is that students worked and worshipped together and this was a major plus in priestly formation. We have a retired Anglican priest associated with our parish and he spent five years in an Anglican order (SSM) at St Michaels house near mount Lofty in the Adelaide hills. This was later burnt out in a bushfire . His experience of living in a monastic community during his formation for the priesthood is now difficult to replicate in Australia and has been replaced by a collection of university courses that nurture the intellect but neglect the foundational aspects of priestly formation.

Peter Sellick | 18 November 2009  

One small but highly significant correction needs to be made to this otherwise insightful commentary. St Francis College will not be "look(ing) to their previous consortia partners" to deliver any subjects. Our expanded faculty will teach all subjects while also undertaking RHD supervision not possible within the BCT. Greg Jenks (Academic Dean, SFC)

Greg Jenks | 18 November 2009  

While Dr Ormerod's article is interesting there are several major errors within. His statement that "The Canberra Anglican college, St Mark’s Theological College... has since subsumed the United Theological College at North Parramatta (Uniting Church), and more recently St Francis Theological College, the Anglican college of the BCT", is not correct.

UTC is an equal partner in the School of Theology of Charles Sturt University, they have equal representation on the Committees of the School and equal rights within the School.

There has been no "subsum(ing)" of UTC by St Mark's. In addition, St Francis' Theological College is affiliated with St Mark's, not subsumed by them. Each institution remains a separate legal entity, and chooses to be a part of the School of Theology by formal agreement.

Dr Peter Pocock, Academic Secretary, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University.

Peter Pocock | 19 November 2009  

Indeed it would have been more accurate to speak of affiliation rather than subsuming. As to whether the partnerships are equal, certainly not in size of faculties or student numbers.

Neil Ormerod | 20 November 2009  

As a graduate of the Flinders (ACD based) BTh I am extremely disappointed to see how this has progressed. I am sure the church leaders have their reasons, but nothing will ever replace the culture and learning provided in the ecumenical setting. St Barnabas as a college really needed the others to provide depth and meaning to the courses and it is a very sad loss for both church and education.
(I have a strong attachment too as my youngest son was the first, and possibly only, Anglican child to be baptised in the Chapel of Reconciliation at the ACD campus. One wonders if even the meaning behind the chapel name has been lost...)

Matthew Holding | 09 February 2010  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up