Ministers left 'disappointed' over Union College decision

Joanne Ross


Joanne Ross


RATHFRILAND ministers who attended Union Theological College have spoken of their surprise at the decision by Queen’s University Belfast to no longer admit new undergraduate theology students.

Last week the university announced it would not admit students to the Union Theological College (UTC), run by the Presbyterian Church, from 2019.

The decision follows a university review which was critical of aspects of teaching and staffing at the college.

A review panel included academics from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and a theologian from another university.

Their report was issued last week and it is understood to include some criticisms of academic practice at the UTC.

“The undergraduate curriculum in theology, however diverse the subject matter, is taught almost entirely from a particular theological and religious perspective,” reads the report.

It also made references to the full-time teaching staff, describing it as “male and predominantly from a Presbyterian background”.

“A single denomination providing all the undergraduate theology provision for a research-based university is highly problematic and not sustainable in today’s post-conflict Northern Ireland,” the report added.

However, several ministers who themselves attended the college have voiced their surprise at QUB’s decision and the criticisms raised.

Minister at Second and Third Rathfriland Presbyterian Church, Rev Seamus Burke was a student for the ministry at UTC from 2009 to 2011.

“I had a very positive experience there both in terms of learning and interaction with the students and teaching faculty. I’m disappointed and a little surprised by Queen’s decision,” he said.

“During my time there I was taught by male and female lecturers and never once did I hear of any criticism of the staffing. I considered their teaching to be of a high academic level, and balanced in nature.

“Over the course of my life my journey of faith has led me to encounter different theological persuasions. I can say that what I was taught in Union was good theology but presented in a manner where I, as the student, could follow my conscience.

“Theology can be complex and difficult to grasp however, my experience of Union was that it was well taught, in a scholarly, yet not superior manner.”

Minister of First Rathfriland Presbyterian Church, Rev Trevor Boyd attended UTC for two years for ministry training.

“I had a very positive experience at UTC with lecturers and with male and female students some of whom I am still in contact with as a result of their careers or through friendship,” he said.

“In preparation for admission to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) training I attended UTC to study for my RE A-Level. The A-Level course has been taught with a high level of student success at A grade.

“When training for the Presbyterian ministry I attended UTC from September 2009 to May 2011 to study for my Diploma in Ministry.”

Coincidentally, when Rev Boyd was a student at the college, Rev Ronnie Hetherington was the Director of Ministerial Studies. Rev Hetherington was once a minister at First Rathfriland Presbyterian Church.

In response to the decision by Queen’s University, Rev Boyd said it was “disappointing”.

“It is sad that there are those within our Presbytery who were going to apply for this course which is not going to allow any new enrolments until at least 2021. When there is so much discussion about having choices, it is disappointing that QUB is reducing student choice.

“I wasn’t aware of any criticism, as at that time there were changes with the Baptist College and Methodist College and UTC was becoming the main centre for theological teaching. UTC has many on their staff who are highly regarded at home and abroad,” he said.

Similarly, Rev Andrew Conway from Hilltown and Clonduff Presbyterian Churches, said he had positive memories of his time as a ministry student doing a postgraduate degree through QUB.

“I have very happy memories of the three years I spent at Union between 2008 and 2011. The teaching, interaction with staff and fellow students and the warm atmosphere have all had a lasting impact on me,” he said.

Describing his experience at UTC as “very positive” he said the criticism in the university review was “mistaken”.

“There was an open-minded and diligent approach to academic study combined with a loving and caring ethos.

“I think such criticism is mistaken. I have relatively little contact with UTC these days, but my impression is that the staff are doing an excellent job at present, and I’m very thankful for them.

“In an age of great change I think UTC is a reliable stabilising influence, and I’m very thankful for that,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want this matter to be seen in an unduly confrontational light. I was blessed to be an undergraduate at QUB Law School before being called to the ministry. I’m thankful for my time at QUB and desire what is good for it as a whole, not just its Institute of Theology. I’m praying that this recent decision will be swiftly reversed.”

In a statement on its website, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said they “very much regret and are disappointed in the decision taken by Queen’s University”.

“Along with other denominational theological colleges that have a relationship with a Russell Group University, Union has a long, positive and mutually beneficial relationship with Queen’s,” said a spokesperson.

“The recommendations of this latest review in effect belittles the oversight of external examiners from prestigious UK universities and the effectiveness of the university’s own quality assurance processes. By suggesting that students of theology at Queen’s have not been exposed to a breadth of theological perspective runs counter to, and contradicts, the reports of external examiners for theology at Queen’s over many years.

“Not by choice, over the last number of years, Union College has become the sole provider of undergraduate degree programmes at the university. The other colleges that once made up the Institute of Theology at Queen’s - the Methodist Church’s Edgehill College, Irish Baptist College and Belfast Bible College - were for various reasons unable to continue to offer Queen’s undergraduate programmes.

“Union College has become the only college able offer the full range of the theology curriculum within the institute.”

In response to the decision taken by QUB, the spokesperson said it was “important to be clear on a number of areas, especially the BA in Theology”.

“Following the Strategic Review of Theology at Queen’s in 2016, members of Union College’s Faculty were proactive in contributing to the development of a new undergraduate degree programme, the BA in Theology, which widened the curriculum and met the review’s recommendation for increased cultural and intellectual diversity.

“As to why Northern Ireland’s three other theological colleges found themselves unable to work with Queen’s University is, of course, an open question,” they said.

“While obviously seeking to maintain our confessional commitment and Christian ethos, the college’s goal has never been to shirk the difficult and hard questions that relate to religious faith and belief.

“The college continues to be actively engaged in research that extends our theological understanding of important issues in contemporary life.

“Union College will consider its formal response to the review and will continue to support, academically and pastorally, our students who have embarked on their studies,” they said.

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