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Reverend Thomas Burns, here pictured with bible in hand, was chancellor of the University of Otago from its foundation in 1869 until his death in 1871. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-005013-F.

Reverend Thomas Burns, here pictured with Bible in hand, was chancellor of the University of Otago from its foundation in 1869 until his death in 1871. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-005013-F.

The University of Otago began in a colony of the Free Church of Scotland which was just a couple of decades old and, despite an influx of new migrants attracted by the gold rushes of the 1860s, Presbyterians still dominated the population. In this environment, you might expect that theology would be one of the subjects on offer at the fledgling university. After all, Presbyterians highly valued education and expected their clergy to complete both undergraduate degrees and postgraduate theological education. But as it turned out, the university was nearly seven decades old by the time it offered courses in theology, and these classes didn’t take place on the main campus until 1985.

Religion did, however, play an important role in the early university. The Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland funded some of the professorial chairs, including physics, philosophy, English and history, and clergy served on the council, with several filling the role of chancellor over the decades. And personal faith mattered to many staff and students, with Christian groups among the earliest and largest of student societies. Religion was a significant feature of society, but it was also a subject of much debate. It is perhaps symbolic that the man who claimed to be the first student to enrol at Otago, Robert Stout, was notorious as one of Dunedin’s leading freethinkers (he later became the first law lecturer, and later still Premier of New Zealand).

New Zealand was a country with no state religion and citizens of varied beliefs and none; the prospect of teaching theology raised the question, “whose theology?” To introduce theology as a subject, approval was necessary from the University of New Zealand, the body which set examinations and awarded degrees for all of the country’s university colleges. Here the proponents of university theology encountered stubborn resistance from those who believed religion had no place in public education, governments reluctant to court controversy, and some churches (notably the Catholic hierarchy), who did not want to see other flavours of theology taught.

Meanwhile, various churches established their own theological colleges in Otago. Anglican Bishop S.T. Nevill began educating Anglican ordinands in his home soon after his appointment in the early 1870s, and after many years of campaigning established Selwyn as a theological college in 1893. It was conveniently close to the university, where many students also attended classes. The Presbyterian Theological Hall started out in the professor’s home, where St Margaret’s stands today, in the mid-1870s, and was located at Knox College from 1909. Many future Presbyterian clergy completed a degree at the University of Otago before going on to their specialist post-graduate training at the Hall. From their foundation, both Knox and Selwyn also served as residential colleges for students in other disciplines. The Catholic Church opened a new national seminary, Holy Cross, at Mosgiel in 1900, and the Churches of Christ set up their New Zealand college at Glen Leith in 1927.

Finally, after decades of lobbying, in 1945 the University of New Zealand approved a postgraduate degree in theology, the Bachelor of Divinity, to be commenced in 1946; this required amendments to legislation. The academic staff of the Presbyterian, Anglican and Churches of Christ colleges became honorary staff of the University of Otago, creating the new Faculty of Theology. Their own churches continued to pay their salaries and classes took place in the colleges. As this was the only university-based theology programme, the faculty also offered extramural programmes to students from all over New Zealand.

An undated Burton Brothers photograph of Knox College. In 1945 the Presbyterian Theological Hall located at Knox became part of the University of Otago Faculty of Theology. Image courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa, reference C.018128.

An undated Burton Brothers photograph of Knox College. In 1945 the Presbyterian Theological Hall located at Knox became part of the University of Otago Faculty of Theology. Image courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa, reference C.018128.

Not everybody who wanted to study theology or religion aimed to become an ordained priest, and there was a growing interest in study from lay people. In 1966 the university appointed its first lecturer in religion, Albert Moore (previous Faculty of Theology appointments were by the churches). This was a joint venture of the faculties of theology and arts, with Moore offering courses in the phenomenology of religion to undergraduates. The courses proved popular and the appointment of a second lecturer in 1974 increased options; it became available as a major for a BA in 1976. Phenomenology of religion, later known as religious studies, became a full department within the Division of Humanities around 1992.

Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, from a Muir and Moodie photograph, c.1905. From 1972 some classes for Otago's Bachelor of Theology degree were taught at this Catholic seminary. Image courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa, reference C.014129.

Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, from a Muir and Moodie photograph, c.1905. From 1972 some classes for Otago’s Bachelor of Theology degree were taught at this Catholic seminary. Image courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa, reference C.014129.

Meanwhile, the Faculty of Theology had begun negotiations to introduce an undergraduate degree, the Bachelor of Theology, to cater for a wider range of students, including people with no interest in ordination. For the first time, in the wake of Vatican II and with growing ecumenical cooperation, Catholics became involved, with the Rector of Holy Cross joining the faculty in 1970. The new degree was introduced in 1972, with classes held at Knox and Holy Cross (Selwyn had its last theological students in the 1960s). Students could also take papers in theology subjects as part of an arts degree, and numbers grew quickly. In 1985, with limited room available at Knox and Holy Cross and many students based at the university rather than theological colleges, first-year classes moved on campus.

Although the university provided some financial support to the church colleges (helping fund their libraries, for example), Faculty of Theology staff were still paid by the churches, despite the fact that many students they taught were not training for ministry. In 1991, when the government introduced EFTS-based funding, the university began paying the salaries of faculty staff (the churches continued to pay for the non-university parts of their employment) and also made a bigger contribution to the costs of the colleges’ teaching facilities. A formal agreement was signed between the university, the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic bishops in 1992.

Following a review in 1995, the university completely restructured its teaching of theology. The Faculty of Theology was merged with the Department of Religious Studies, and in 1997 the current Department of Theology and Religion came into being. The agreement with the churches ended and the university now had independent control of theology, including the employment of all staff. Rather than setting up alternative courses in opposition to the university, the Presbyterians restructured their ordination training programme (now provided by the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership) and the Catholics moved their ordination training to Auckland, merging with the Marists to form a new Holy Cross Seminary.

Religion has a complex history at the University of Otago, and a post this length could not touch on all of the controversies involved! Theology, once a subject of much suspicion, is now firmly entrenched as an academic discipline, though its path to acceptance was not easy. Do you have any memories to share of theology’s Otago past?

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