THE astonishing rise in the popularity of religious studies at GCSE and A level over the past decade has not, as might have been expected, been matched by an equivalent increase in demand for places in university theology departments. On the contrary, many universities have closed or shrunk their theology and religious-studies faculties. Only 55 — fewer than half — of the UK universities now offer these subjects.
Those that do, unsurprisingly, include all but one of the 15 members of the ecumenical Cathedrals Group of church universities. Over recent years, the oldest of these, Chester, has seen a remarkable growth in its theology and religious-studies faculty.
It is now one of the largest departments in the country; it has 168 full-time undergraduates, and 136 working for postgraduate degrees. Of the 20 academic staff members, just over half specialise in traditional areas, such as systematic theology and textual studies, and it is one of a handful of departments, other than Oxford and Cambridge, to teach Hebrew and Greek. Dr Ben Fulford, for example, teaches systematic theology: his research interest is the Church Fathers.
SO FAR, so traditional. Within the department, however, is a significant presence of the distinctively contemporary approach brought by practical and contextual theology. Dr Wayne Morris, who leads the department, edits the journal Practical Theology, which emphasises the importance of bringing issues of justice and human rights into conversation with theological and religious perspectives.
He is particularly engaged with the Deaf community, and says: “All our scholars, whether using systematic, textual, contextual, or empirical approaches to research, are interested in the intersections between religion, theology, and spirituality, and contemporary society. I would say this is distinctive of our staff research interests and the programmes of study we offer.”
So students can study modules on, for example, medical ethics, religion and gender, theology and the body, feminist perspectives, theology, and animals, to name just a few. One of the best known practitioners in the field, Professor Elaine Graham, boosted this approach when she moved to Chester from Manchester University in 2009. She developed a professional doctorate programme in which candidates engage in theological reflection on their own professional practice.
Dr Wendy Dossett, who teaches Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, is also interested in the part played by spirituality in recovery from addiction. She heads the CSARS initiative (Chester Studies of Addiction, Recovery and Spirituality Group) based in the department.
Dr Hannah Bacon, who initially studied at another Cathedrals Group university, Liverpool Hope, is particularly interested in the application of theology to feminist issues, including the predominantly female preoccupation with diet.
STUDENTS’ interests differ as much as those of the staff. Dan Walker, Helen Thomas, and Liam Metcalfe all took first-class degrees at Chester. Mr Walker, aged 21, from Beverley, in east Yorkshire, and a son of the vicarage, hopes to be ordained, and is now studying for an MA in systematic theology.
Ms Thomas, 52, read forestry as Oxford. Now living in the Wirral, and a Reader in her parish, she first came to Chester to do a Church Colleges Certificate, moved on to a part-time undergraduate degree in theology, and is now working for a doctorate in biblical studies.
Mr Metcalfe, also from the Wirral, stayed on after doing well in his first degree. With no church background, he became interested in religious studies at school, and says that the breadth of study drew him to the subject. His religious-studies programme has included anthropology and sociology, as well as traditional theology.
HOLLYBANK, a converted black-and-white 19th-century school, provides a discrete home for the department, and students and staff speak of feeling part of a single community.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, or what stage you’re at, there’s always someone around to discuss things with,” Mr Metcalfe says.
This feeling of being part of an academic family probably explains why the department is regularly among the top ten in the student-satisfaction section of the National Student Survey.
It also scores highly in the survey’s employability ratings. More than 90 per cent of Chester’s new theology and religious-studies graduates find graduate-level employment within six months of leaving. “Our students acquire important skills in critical thinking and problem-solving, and have useful insights into issues of diversity and equality,” Dr Morris says. “It is particularly pleasing when they take up posts in other universities.”
Chester graduates have recently become lecturers at Royal Holloway College, University of London; Maynooth, in the Irish Republic; and Winchester.
Beyond Hollybank, the department’s influence extends beyond the city. Chester validates the academic qualifications — and, in some cases, provides courses for — more than 1000 part-time students registered through partnerships with other institutions. Partners include St John’s School of Mission, Nottingham, and eight study centres for Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that increasingly seek broader study and formal qualifications for their leaders.
It is, however, the growth in the number of undergraduates which is most surprising. The department now has more first-degree theology and religious-studies students than many older universities. Applications increased noticeably after a redesign of courses over the past decade.
It seems likely that the new programmes reflect GCSE and A-level syllabuses by offering young people the opportunity to study at university level just those theological and religious themes that have captured their imagination.