What a good feeling it is to see a university get rid of its theology courses! Religious history or comparative religion is fine; theology, not so much. If you want to teach about the properties of nonexistent objects, do it in a private divinity school or seminary. There’s simply no excuse for a public university to act as if superstition is real; it’s as if they had an entire curriculum devoted to ghosts, their properties, and their wishes, and pretended they were studying real objects! Or an entire curriculum on homeopathy in or alongside a medical school.
But King’s College London has made the decision, although it was ostensibly made on financial grounds. According to The Tablet (a Catholic news weekly),
Leading theologians have criticised the closure of a university’s post-graduate theology and ministry programme as “deeply regrettable”.
(Note that there are also “ministry” courses, so King’s College is also in the business of teaching preachers to tell lies)
The decision to shut down the influential theology and ministry courses at King’s College London was taken, according to the university, for financial reasons in order to make the department “viable” for the long term.
The move came after the appointment of Alister McGrath, former chair of theology, ministry and education, to be Andreos Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford.
Another key departure was Dr Anna Rowlands, appointed as a lecturer in contemporary Catholic theology and deputy director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, who formerly lectured in political and moral theology on the programme.
I’ve read a bit of McGrath for the Albatross, and find him an unexceptionable, garden-variety accomodationist, and a vocal critic of New Atheism. He wrote, among other books, The Dawkins Delusion (coauthored with his wife Joanna McGrath). Wikipedia says that he’s a former atheist, and he’s criticized Dawkins for being theologically unsophisticated (see aforementioned book).
It’s an embarrassment to Oxford and other state-supported schools in the UK that they would even have programs in theology, and this has always baffled me. It may be a holdover from the days when those schools were actually religious institutions, but in a modern world there’s no excuse for it. In fact, having theology programs in public universities would be illegal in the U.S., as it would constitute an illegal violation of the First Amendment (public endorsement of religious doctrine). Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are among the best universities in the world, and yet they still teach theology. And a Center for Catholic Studies at Durham University? Really? Why is that?
Some academics are mourning the downgrading of theology, but I’d say that if you have to cut somewhere, theology should be the first thing to go. Those academics who regret the loss of theology departments are, I suspect, either theologians themselves or believers.
The Tablet’s report continues:
There is concern in academic circles that theology courses may be squeezed due to the financial pressures universities are coming under. The move to end the course at King’s comes after it was revealed that Heythrop College, a specialist philosophy and theology institute, is talks about a “strategic partnership” with St Mary’s University, Twickenham (see below).
. . . Professor McGrath said: “I learned with great sadness of the closure of the theology and ministry course. I believe it was one of the best in the land. It contributed very significantly to the intellectual and pastoral well-being of the churches. I do not think the decision is reversible, but it is deeply regrettable.”
No; it’s to be applauded! But there’s one skunk in the woodpile, for this is also reported:
Around 120 postgraduate students studied for taught doctorates or an MA on the theology and ministry programme at King’s. The existing students will continue their courses in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.
I don’t quite get how they can deep-six an entire theology and ministry program but still retain a Department of Theology and Religious Studies. If they shut down the postgraduate program in theology, what are the graduate students going to do in a Department of Theology and Religious studies? This also suggests that undergraduate courses will continue in that Department.
Come on, King’s: it’s time for you to put away your childish things. Is there anybody here willing to defend entire departments of theology in the UK?