The atmosphere at Queen’s University Belfast will be “a few degrees colder” for Protestants after the institution severed links with all four partnering theological colleges of the same outlook this week, an MLA has claimed.
QUB’s move this week to shut its Institute of Theology ends links with the Presbyterian Union Theological College (UTC), the Methodist Edgehill Theological College, The Irish Baptist College and Belfast Bible College.
UTC had the most QUB students, including undergraduates, while the other three had a smaller number of post-graduate students only.
In June 2018 the Presbyterian General Assembly took a highly controversial decision to exclude people in same sex relationships from church membership and their children from baptism.
UTC professor Laurence Kirkpatrick critiqued the decision in the media and was then suspended (and later sacked). Three weeks after the vote QUB announced a fresh review of its links with UTC “in light of a number of developments in recent weeks”.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford expressed concern after QUB suspended its link with UTC in December last year. He noted QUB was forging ahead on links with the women’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman university in Saudi Arabia, which enforces strict Islamic rules on its female only students.
He said thus week: “I am disappointed but not entirely surprised by QUB’s decision to sever ties with UTC.
“Along with Gordon Lyons MLA I met with QUB over this at the university’s request. They indicated that the decision had absolutely nothing to do with recent decisions made by the Presbyterian General Assembly.”
Apparently contrary to the stated reasons for the review given to the media in June, the report QUB published this week said that the reason for severing ties was because UTC had not satisfactorily complied with a strategic review in 2016 – two years before the controversial vote.
This week’s report from QUB made no mention of church policy on same sex relationships nor the church vote which had apparently prompted the review.
I believe this action will lead people from a Protestant background to feel the atmosphere at QUB is a few degrees colder for them.Christopher Stalford, DUP MLA
But Mr Stalford contested the apparently new rationale for the review, saying its raises “serious and important questions around the process”. He also expressed concerns that “there may have been lobbying” from outside QUB on the matter of severing ties with the colleges.
“If that was the case it would raise serious questions about academic freedom and respect for freedom of conscience. According to audits UTC has an excellent track record and the standard of its teaching is good.
“I believe this action will lead people from a Protestant background to feel the atmosphere at QUB is a few degrees colder for them.”
Invited to respond, QUB referred to two full pages of the 13 page report it published this week on closing its Institute of Theology and reissued a statement from earlier in the week. It said: “Queen’s University recently conducted a review of the Institute of Theology’s Agreements and relationships with a particular focus on the undergraduate teaching and curriculum being delivered by Union Theological College (UTC).
“After considering the findings of the review, combined with the previous review conducted in 2016, the University outlined concerns regarding the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum being delivered and suspended undergraduate entry for 2019-20.
“Queen’s University has now considered the longer-term implications of the review and Senate has approved a recommendation from Academic Council regarding the Institute of Theology’s Agreements and relationships going forward.
“As a result, the University will no longer award degrees in the subject of Theology following completion of current students. The BA Theology, BD, Graduate Diploma in Theology and MRes in Theology will be withdrawn with no further intake of students.
“Therefore, the current arrangement with the four Theological Colleges will run until the end of its current term (31 August 2019) and will not be renewed.”
Former Alliance leader Lord Alderdice, who resigned his membership of the Presbyterian Church after the controversial vote, Tweeted his support for QUB over the matter this week.
“Queen’s University’s decision to cut ties with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s theological college is a further indication of the slide of PCI [Presbyterian Church in Ireland] into religious fundamentalism,” he said. “It is very sad but QUB could not be expected to promote academic obscurantism [the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known].”
The vote caused unprecedented public rifts within the 220,000 members church, with over 200 ministers and elders, and separately 600 members, signing two open letters of protest.
High profile Presbyterians and current or former Alliance Party leaders Naomi Long, David Ford and Lord Alderdice all publicly criticised the church’s new policy.
However DUP MP Jim Wells protested that QUB was maintaining links with St Mary’s College in west Belfast, a formally Catholic college which he said therefore shared the same teaching on marriage as the Presbyterian Church.