The study of theology and religious studies is set to disappear from universities and colleges in the UK unless drastic action is taken, according to a new report by the British Academy.
The report found that the number of students studying Theology and Religious Studies [TRS] degrees has fallen by a third since 2012, when higher tuition fees were introduced. This is in contrast to other humanities subjects, such as philosophy, which have recovered from similar drops in applications.
Some institutions - Bangor University and the University of Sheffield - have closed their theology schools, and others - including the University of Lincoln and Anglia Ruskin - reported no enrolment in 2017/2018.
The report also noted the closure of Heythrop College, the Jesuit-run theological college in London, and reported that the University of Aberdeen, which began restructuring its School of Divinity History and Philosophy in 2018, reportedly plans to divest religious studies.
Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, told The Tablet: “We shouldn’t think the disappearance of theology is inevitable - this is what will happen if nothing is done about it. Things can be done, like making sure university departments are encouraging religious education in schools, and making sure careers advisors are aware of the good news about theology. The report makes clear that those who study theology get jobs that are satisfying, worthwhile and well-paid.”
He warned of a lack of understanding of the importance of religious education among some university executives and administrators.
“The obvious line is to go for is those disciplines that provide lots of money very quickly - medicine is clearly at the extreme end of that - which is a problem for those disciplines regarded, quite wrongly, as marginal, like music,” he said. “These things are vital for the health and sanity of society and it’s very difficult to measure health and sanity if you’re a bean counter. Getting the bean counters on side would be a very useful thing.”
While the number of applications to public institutes has fallen, the number of students studying theology at private alternative providers has grown by 14 per cent since 2016/17. The largest of these is St Mellitus College, an evangelical training college; others that reported significant numbers of students included For Mission College in London and Nazarene Theological College in Manchester. The majority of alternative providers were affiliated to Christian denominations, including several affiliated with evangelical Christianity.
Writing in The Tablet Fr Ashley Beck, President of the Catholic Theological Association, warned of the promotion of catechetical programmes that did not encourage critical reflection over the resources of good theology. He called for a renewed sense within the Church of theology as a vocation. “For Catholics there can be the added feeling that what you do is not really valued by the Church either because some people think academic theology is high-brow or irrelevant, or because some people don’t like your view and think you’re a heretic,” he wrote.
The British Academy report also warned of the lack of diversity among TRS staff. The proportion of female academic staff in TRS increased to 37 per cent in 2017/18 but remains much lower than other humanities subjects. Almost two thirds of undergraduate first degree students in TRS are women, but the proportion reverses for doctoral study.
Professor Candida Moss, Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, said that part of the problem was making theology sound relevant when the perception was that it “is just a conversation between older white men”. She called on universities to hire and support more people of colour and women, and to modernise their curricula to include more interfaith subjects, and ethical issues like disability rights and the environment.
“Theology is a male dominated discipline,” she told The Tablet. “Because I had strong female mentors and advisers I was sheltered from a lot of the patriarchal detritus that accompanies those kinds of demographics, but that’s my point. If we want to attract non-white and non-male students to our discipline we need to hire and support those who will mentor them.”