These theological times they are a-changing
The face of ministry and the face of theological education is changing — and changing rapidly — and United Theological College (UTC) is both responding to and creating the change.
Such change is not a new phenomenon, UTC Principal, the Rev. Dr Clive Pearson, told the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT meeting on September 25.
As a theological student and a candidate for ministry across the Tasman in 1981, the new intake of students he had been part of numbered 20. Eighteen of these students were Anglo men studying for the ministry.
Ten years later he taught an equivalent class of 60 students. Half were men, half were women, half were Anglo and half were a mix of Maori, Islander and one or two of Asian background. Only six were candidates for ministry and others were studying theology for a wide variety of reasons.
Today just over a third of UTC’s student body was Anglo, around a third was of Pacific Islander background and another third Asian. There were also a handful of Lebanese and African students Dr Pearson said.
Students studied online and a number come to UTC from overseas churches. Next year, for example, UTC hoped to host an indigenous Fijian student – the first Fijian woman to do a PhD in New Testament Studies. Dr Pearson said the General Secretary and President of the Methodist Church in Fiji say that, if this student is successful, then this would set up their church for the next 20 years.
Dr Pearson noted courses, structures and what happens in formation and field placements as other areas of change.
He said the college strived to devise subjects and courses and field placements that could “speak into” what it meant to be Christian in a culturally diverse, secular, multi-faith, Christian and post-Christian public culture and into “what it meant to be Christian in the face of climate change or other significant social issues”.
No candidate had exactly the same program of study he said.
Dr Pearson said UTC’s immediate future was “open” but would involve working collaboratively with the newly-established Uniting Mission and Education and with presbyteries, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander and Christian Congress and cross-cultural committees in the “ever-changing landscape” of this Synod.
He said the theological questions students brought to their studies were part of a larger narrative which “may be the same in every age and place but how they are answered and put into practice can require fresh expression.
“It does not matter if you are conservative or radical — these kind of questions remain.”
Such questions fired Christian imagination and action, were the stuff of theological vision and constituted the “heart beat of faith”, he said.
Dr Pearson said the task of theological education was to listen to the questions — including the overarching question of “Who is Jesus Christ for us today, where is he to be located and where is he calling us?” — and let them form what was studied and talked about and, by extension, to shape who we are and who we aspire to become.
“The biblical and theological task has never been more complex, more necessary, more exciting than it is now,” Dr Pearson said. “It is not a luxury option, an extra. It lies at the very heart of what we do for Christ’s sake.”