Presbyterian college will continue despite QUB setback, says principal Stafford Carson

Dr Stafford Carson at St Paul's Cathedral when he represented the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher
Dr Stafford Carson at St Paul's Cathedral when he represented the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher

The principal of the Presbyterian Church’s ministry training college has said that it will always exist, despite a decision by Queen’s University to stop using its services for its undergraduate theology training.

On Tuesday night it was revealed that Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) is suspending entry to all undergraduates who were hoping to take theological degrees with it in 2019-20. At present all its theological education is provided by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s own institution, Union Theological College in Belfast, a relationship of almost 100 years standing.

QUB said the reason for suspending entry for theology undergraduates next year was its concerns regarding “the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum being delivered” at UTC.

The university’s decision came from a review of UTC which was announced after a highly controversial vote by the church leaders in June, to exclude people in same-sex relationships from membership. The move prompted unprecedented public debate among members.

A source close to QUB told the News Letter: “I think what has really happened is that the university has become highly embarrassed to be seen to have connections with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland after the vote taken at its general assembly in June on full membership and same-sex relationships.” QUB declined to comment on the claim.

The Presbyterian Church raised a series of claims about QUB’s review and decision, including:

• Russell university group independent assessors never raised any problems with “diversity” and teaching at UTC over many years;

• The QUB review began only a week into a new BA in Theology course UTC launched in September to meet QUB recommendations made in 2016; this did not allow sufficient time for it to be evaluated;

• Student testimonials and QUB monitoring over many years never raised any issues with “diversity” or teaching;

• QUB had already severed links with NI’s three other theological colleges, leaving UTC as QUB’s sole theological provider, “but not by choice”.

A QUB spokeswoman it would not offer any comment on the concerns.

UTC principal Stafford Carson said it is owned and run by the Presbyterian Church, with all staff being paid by the church. The fees which accompany each QUB student go to fund the delivery of the courses.

At present it has around 190 students, around 30 of whom are training for the Presbyterian ministry. The college will continue to train its ministers and is considering alternatives to its links with QUB, he said.

“Whatever happens, by God’s grace, there will still be a Union Theological College,” he added.

In a statement, the university said it recently reviewed its Institute of Theology’s Agreements and Relationships with a particular focus on the undergraduate teaching and curriculum being delivered by Union Theological College (UTC).

“Having considered the findings of this review, combined with the previous review conducted in 2016, the university has concerns regarding the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum being delivered,” it said.

“Therefore, the university has taken the decision to suspend entry to all undergraduate programmes for the forthcoming 2019-20 academic year.

“The university is now considering the implications of the review for the longer term future of theology provision through the university’s institute and the associated programmes.

“This requires comprehensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, including Union Theological College, which is now under way.

“The university is committed to ensuring that issues raised by the review will be addressed and its priority is to continue to support students who have already begun their course.

“It is committed to ensuring that the university’s educational standards are met for the remainder of their studies and will be working constructively with UTC to achieve this.

“Prospective students that have already applied for 2019-20 entry to affected programmes are being contacted and will be supported to find suitable alternatives.”

The university declined to answer any questions about the decision.

QUB staff and alumni have expressed contrasting views about the university’s decision.

Rebecca Loader, research fellow at QUB’s Centre for Shared Education, tweeted that she was “disappointed” with the response from UTC.

She said UTC was “basically suggesting they see few issues with an all-male staff or a singular denominational outlook in contemporary NI”.

She added: “That theology here is mostly taught from a confessional perspective is a problem.”

However, UTC graduate and UUP councillor Nicholas Trimble said he “thoroughly enjoyed the years I spent at UTC and, whilst there have been a few controversial faculty changes since then, this seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water”.

He claimed the QUB charter did not allow the teaching of religion, so links with external colleges were necessary.