Editorial: April 2022
The State of Theology and Religious Studies in UK Universities
This special issue of Crucible focuses on the state of the study of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK today, with particular reference to its future in British universities. In an increasingly market-driven model of higher education, TRS today faces a perfect storm of pressures to do with student recruitment, public reputation and institutional viability. So, what are the current challenges and what are its future prospects?
First, and perhaps most serious, is the crisis in student demand. Especially among the lucrative undergraduate market, student numbers are falling, due to a number of factors, including the drop in A-level admissions, higher student fees and diminishing numbers of those entering the Christian ministry. Since 2012, undergraduate admissions to Theology and Religious Studies undergraduate programmes through the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) have fallen by one-third, due in large part to the increase in tuition fees to £9000 in 2012-13. In 2007- 08 just over 10,000 students were admitted to higher education; ten years later that total had dropped by 50% (British Academy 11). As fee income diminishes, TRS departments, which are often small and specialised, have experienced increasing difficulty in justifying their economic viability to institutions dominated by science, engineering and medical disciplines or seeking to maximise recruitment to larger, more attractive programmes in English, History, Philosophy or Business Studies. Despite being one of the most ancient disciplines in the Western university, as well as ample evidence of its continuing intellectual vitality, the very existence of theological and religious studies is contested by those who accuse it of lacking in academic rigour and having no legitimacy in the secular, modern, scientific academy.
What of the relationship between the academy and the churches? For centuries, the study of theology in universities was closely associated with training for the ordained ministry. It is certainly the case that large proportions of those studying for formal and accredited ministry still undertake some form of university-validated qualification. However, the relationship today is often at one remove from university departments as teaching has been redirected to specialist denominational institutions (often former Bible Colleges) or theological colleges. Internal pressures on academic staff to publish for external research assessment exercises (such as the Research Excellence Framework 2021, due to report in May 2022) often leave little time or scope for more popular writing or public engagement. Yet paradoxically, according to the conventions of research excellence known as ‘impact’, which evaluates ways in which academic research contributes to public engagement and social policy, TRS rates extremely highly, often benefitting from its proximity to faith communities.
Thirdly, like many academic disciplines and established social and educational institutions, Theology and Religious Studies has had to confront its own captivity in the structures and mind-sets of racism, sexism and colonialism. As a recent report on the state of TRS in universities indicated, many sections of the population are under-represented or simply absent from either the student body or staff members. While women constitute nearly two-thirds of the undergraduate body, the ratio decreases among postgraduates, largely due to recruitment of overseas candidates. Within the profession as a whole, while the proportion of female academic staff in TRS is increasing, from 34.5% in 2012/13 to 37.2% in 2017/18, this compares unfavourably with the gender balance across all humanities and languages which was 53.1% female in 2017/18 (British Academy 23). Overall, ‘Theology and Religious Studies has an ageing staff profile in universities which is predominantly white and male, signifying issues in both the diversity and the sustainability of the discipline.’ (British Academy 4)
Similarly, campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter serve as an indictment of the discipline’s endemic racial and cultural biases, not only in aspects of staff and student recruitment but also in the very nature of its knowledge base. Despite some attention to the study of global and diaspora religious communities, and the gradual acceptance of alternative theoretical and methodological frameworks such as feminism, post-colonialism, Queer Theory and so on, the study of religion remains predominantly Western and its canon white and male. There are signs of some advances in decolonising the curriculum and organisations such as the Society for the Study of Theology have pledged to offer preferential support for BAME student members. Even so, the discipline faces long-term challenges if it is to become truly representative of the society and world in which it works. Out of that we can perhaps identify three key issues:
- Diversity and representation
- Intellectual credibility
Our three contributors to this issue address these questions and consider and the prospects for TRS.
Despite the gloom, David Ford’s article provides uplifting evidence of the continuing health and vitality of the discipline. As his article suggests, any survey of the research and teaching conducted across the sector in departments of Theology and Religious Studies would be struck by its breadth and versatility. Even a general undergraduate degree in the subject will expose students to the study of beliefs and ideas, of a range of religious and ritual practices, and the political and ethical dimensions of religious traditions. In addition to the study of objections to religious belief, students are increasingly introduced to fields beyond traditional or institutional religion, including work on non-religion, therapeutic and existential cultures, and religious engagement with aspects of culture and society. Most TRS programmes and departments already contain a microcosm of other fields of study, drawing on textual, linguistic, historical, philosophical and social disciplines and methodologies.
Similarly, Ford finds encouragement in the discipline’s contribution to important areas of knowledge and the creative and generative possibilities of inter- and multi-disciplinary collaboration. While he points to specific examples of academics working alongside particular faith-communities – in a model of what we might understand as Anselm’s ‘Faith seeking Understanding’ - there are other, numerous examples in which scholarship in the field is having a considerable impact on wider society. This spans everything from understanding sacred texts, beliefs and ideas, historical movements and religious teachings, through to aspects of lived religion and the world-views, rituals and practices that are associated with them. In turn, as Ford argues, research is generating new ways of thinking about how people might act ethically, politically and therapeutically, as well as what it means to build more just and sustainable societies. And crucially, through projects such as Scriptural Reasoning, theologians are helping to deepen mutual understanding across a wide range of religious communities and traditions, fostering inter-religious dialogue and collaboration and enabling members of religious communities to inhabit their traditions in new ways.
Carlton Turner’s article is an exemplary case of scholarship in Theology and Religious Studies that is breaking new ground to meet the twin challenges of diversity and representation. He demonstrates graphically how the structures of Western knowledge are deeply entrenched in the practices, mind-sets and institutions of colonialism and draws on often-neglected writers whose work embodies the imperative to listen differently and to discover theological sources and resources in unexpected places. This entails a capacity to seek out voices that speak in different registers and even to consider how theology is being expressed and communicated beyond the written word. It has radical consequences for the ways in which theology is taught, practised and communicated.
In an interview with James Woodward, Stephen Pattison, one of Britain’s foremost practical theologians until his retirement, offers a typically trenchant assessment of what is wrong with academic theology. Even so, his is also a testimony to a life-long fascination - one might say love - of the discipline and his frustration at its lack of imagination and courage to engage with the pressing challenges of the day. Like Carlton Turner, Pattison invites us to turn many of our assumptions about the nature of theological enquiry on their heads. He offers a manifesto for a thoroughly secular but world-affirming field of enquiry, modelled on openness and mutual dialogue, especially with the majority of those beyond the conventionally ‘religious’. Indeed, ‘conversation’ is one of Pattison’s favourite words, and it serves as the hallmark of his theological approach. He also expresses his passionate conviction that, above all, theology is essentially practical, responding seriously and responsibly to our deepest existential, moral, political and human questions.
Pattison’s article issues a challenge to theologians and scholars of religion to reinvent themselves as public intellectuals, serving levels of popular interest beyond institutional religion in moral, existential and philosophical questions that shows no sign of diminishing.
The challenge for the study of TRS, and especially Christian theology, will be to remain innovative and responsive to its intellectual context, to reflect its social context, strive for greater inclusion and prove its practical worth. This is because at its best, Christian theology emerges out of dialogue between intellectual enquiry, social context and the practices of faith – or as some, like the North American theologian David Tracy have put it, theology sits at the interface of academy, society and church, or community of faith. We hope these articles provide sobering but also encouraging reading, both in setting out a realistic assessment of the prospects for TRS in our universities but also offering some signs of hope.
Elaine Graham is Professor Emerita of Practical Theology at the University of Chester and a Fellow of the British Academy.
British Academy, Theology and Religious Studies Provision in UK Higher Education, London: British Academy, 2019 <https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/theology-religious-studies-provision-uk-higher-education/>.