Theology by any other name is just as holy


Timothy Williams

A report leaked this week recommends radical changes to the Theology Faculty to broaden its appeal.

Among the recommendations of a 40-page report, jointly produced by the Humanities Division and the University’s Education Committee, are a name change to ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ or ‘Divinity’, the dropping of A Level Religious Studies as preferred for entry, and a “radical” rethink of the course structure and content.

The report, leaked to The Times, said alterations would make the degree more attractive “to students whose primary interests lie outside the Judeo-Christian tradition”.

In response to the review, the Dr Paul Joyce, Chairman of the Theology Faculty Board, said the name change is “being considered in the light of the long-term broadening of the curriculum and also in the light of the fact that most other universities use different names for an equivalent unit. It is far from certain that any change will be made”.

Joyce said that the study of non-Christian faiths has increased over the past 20 years but “such studies complement rather than replace work on Christianity”.

“Oxford Theology continues to affirm its strong commitment to teaching and research in the areas core to its discipline: Biblical Studies, Doctrine, and Church History.”

He added that Religious Studies A Level was “never a pre-requisite” and that asking for A Levels in a “range” of Arts subjects would “reflect the important fact that in admissions we are looking above all for aptitude and potential”.

“The recommendations are a series of points for discussion, and these discussions will not be concluded within this academic year.”

However, James Patrick, tutor and lecturer for the Faculty said changing the name “is not only an unnecessary attempt at ‘modernisation’, but it fundamentally misunderstands the theological endeavour itself. Just as History cannot be reduced to historiography, or English to literature, or Music to performance, so a change from Theology to religious studies would be to prioritise style over substance, and to cheapen the unique perspective that the Faculty of Theology contributes to the university’s investigation of reality in all its diversity.” Another academic told The Times the changes were a “suicide note”.

First-year Mansfield Theologian, Jack Andrews said rebranding as ‘Divinity’ would be “a step back –it’s more old-fashioned”, while ‘Religious Studies’ is “a bit Key Stage 3”.

Citing the fact that Christianity was important in founding many colleges and halls, Andrews added: “Oxford has the history of a Christian base and I think that’s worth preserving in a form such as Theology.”

Rosie Chesterton, also at Mansfield said: “I’d like to keep the faculty as it is but agree that there is no real benefit of studying A Level RS. Calling it Theology rather than Religious Studies is quite helpful in that it tells sixth-formers that they’ll be studying something different.”

There are options to study Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism as part of the Theology course but the four compulsory finals papers are all Christianity-based. The subject is one of the least popular with fewer than three applicants per place.

Chesterton added: “You wouldn’t be able to fit deep study of more than one religion into three years. If you wanted to study Islam you’d apply for Oriental Studies not just Theology.”

Martin Sinclair, head of Religious Studies at Richard Huish College in Taunton, said he would “welcome” a name change, and said: “A broadening of the title would reflect where the subject has to be if it is to thrive in today’s world.

However, most of  my Oxford Theology applicants are committed Christians and want to study that religion in depth.”