A New Stage in Ecumenical Theological Education

Since 1969 students of theology at Trinity College have benefited from a unique and remarkable educational partnership with the Jesuit Theological College and what is now the Uniting Church Theological College. Students from each college and tradition were to be taught by the others, without exchange of fees; more than just financial generosity to each other, this signalled a commitment to scholarship and ecumenism that has had few parallels in the world. The United Faculty of Theology became an associated teaching institution of the Melbourne College of Divinity, and pioneered the coursework Bachelor of Theology degree. The UFT was however never incorporated as a distinct structure, but technically remained an informal arrangement between the three Colleges.

Today came the formal announcement that the UFT will cease to operate at the end of 2014. This is a sad outcome in many respects, but there is much that is positive that will not be lost from the change. Here I want to reflect on some of the background from Trinity’s perspective, and to consider issues that remain for us all in the work of theological education, denominationally and ecumenically too.

Changes in the Colleges
In recent years each of the three partner Colleges has faced changing circumstances and new challenges. Most starkly the Jesuit Theological College has been affected by a significant downturn in Australian vocations. The Uniting Church Theological College, funded by a denominational structure which had historically been deeply committed to theological education but has had significant and very public financial issues, has faced hard questions about costs and benefits.

Trinity, too, has faced challenges. While not a department of the church, the changing reality of Australian Anglicanism has impacted the Theological School. There are now few young and single resident candidates, and more part-time and mature age students, often still in discernment (most of whom have, however, sought ordination at some point). The Dioceses of the Victorian Province, led by Melbourne, support us not quite to the extent of one staff position. We are dependent on significant support from the wider operations of Trinity College, as well on philanthropic support from individuals and parishes.

Independent Students, Dioceses, the University
The environment in which we do the work of theological education has also changed in a number of ways.

Over time, the centre of gravity in the UFT had shifted. Students of the three constituent colleges were originally the whole student body, but for very good reasons the UFT began to admit private or independent students who were not (or not yet) seeking ordination. These included considerable numbers from the traditions of the three Colleges themselves, but who unlike College students were charged tuition fees that supported a growing central UFT office. Over time, a considerable number of Anglicans who were eventually to seek ordination came to enrol initially as independent students rather than through Trinity, lessening their exposure to specifically formational elements of theological education. And these independent students, channeled into that category by a somewhat narrow sense of what College students had to be (i.e., ordinands or professed religious), actually became a majority of the student body.

While College students had for decades paid token or no tuition fees to the UFT (and only administrative capitation charges to the MCD), in 2004 the Melbourne Diocese determined that all its ordination candidates should now do so and make use of the FEE-Help program, which like HECS allows students to borrow the cost of tuition fees. This was an important step that not only provided a new funding source for Trinity, but helped to focus our attention on the importance of increasing enrolments and on having an impact on Melbourne Anglicanism wider than the training of clergy for catholic-minded parishes. It did however put Trinity’s students on a different footing from those of the other two Colleges, who paid no fees and typically received more material support.

Last but not least, the Melbourne College of Divinity, once a rather “light-touch” accrediting body, became more and more a central University administration. It attracted research funding, including support for doctoral candidates in its Colleges, and expected the Colleges more and more to account for their programs relative to wider educational regulations and standards. This process culminated in University status for what is now the University of Divinity in 2012. The new University meanwhile was signalling that it would require clearer accountability from its affiliates around their financial and organisational stability, among other things. The UFT - organisationally not a legal entity with whom an agreement could even be made - posed some anomalies.

What Now?
These changing realities led to different responses among the member Colleges of the UFT.

Trinity has for some time affirmed that access to formational experience - worship, spiritual direction, field education, and denominational as well as ecumenical forms of advice - should be available equally to students with different goals, tailored according to their specific needs. We have long stated that the “independent” student should be an exception allowed for, rather than a norm, and have thus been enrolling more Anglican students at Trinity, regardless of their place in the ordination process.

We thus proposed that each College of the UFT should henceforth be affirmed as a constituent of the University, not merely through the central and legally-intangible UFT itself. We also felt it was insufficient to celebrate the ecumenical character of the UFT as an end in itself, when there were increasing possibilities in the wider University of Divinity - which now includes Lutherans, Copts and others as well as Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Uniting Church - that could benefit our students.

Neither the Uniting Church Theological College, which has a more immediate governance nexus to its denomination and is funded to train its candidates, nor our Jesuit colleagues, with their mission focussed specifically on members of the Society of Jesus, had the same incentives for direct College affiliation with the University. This became a sticking point in our conversations. Some of our ecumenical partners were concerned at the growth of Trinity’s student body relative to those who had been “independent”, not least because Trinity’s faculty had historically been the smallest contributor to the whole. Ultimately our partners expressed an unwillingness to continue the arrangements to teach Trinity students without fees. Alternative proposals, including one by us to share all costs and revenues equally, were not favoured.

The recent news that the Jesuit Theological College will cease to operate in its present form has made some of these issues moot. While we hope there will be ways, yet to be determined, in which our Jesuit colleagues will continue to contribute to the life of the University of Divinity, the envisaged end or departure of JTC also means the end of the UFT as we have known it.

The 2014 academic year has been one of transition. Both we and our Uniting Church colleagues have been granted status as Colleges of the University of Divinity. Both will continue to teach the UFT students whom we have historically known as “independent”, and will seek to continue the UFT’s tradition of academic excellence and ecumenical cooperation, in new and distinctive ways. We hope that Trinity students will continue to study with our Uniting Church colleagues, but also at other campuses of the University of Divinity that provide wider denominational and theological perspectives.

The passing of the UFT in its known form is certainly cause for sadness, but especially for gratitude for these many years of fruitful cooperation. We now stand on the verge of a new period of ecumenical theological education, characterised not just by the local cooperation of three Colleges in Parkville, but by the growing cooperation of a larger number of denomination Colleges across Melbourne and beyond it, in a strong ecumenical University. To our ecumenical colleagues, our students, and God, we give thanks.