Transforming Theology

A Vision for MCD University of Divinity

This text is based on a presentation given to MCD Council on 30 December 2011

In 2008 I was appointed Dean of the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne, in what was then known as the Melbourne College of Divinity. Over the past four years I have worked with UFT staff and students, offering course advice, developing curriculum, shaping research, and engaging with the churches and community. This has been a unique experience, as our staff and students come from a wide range of religious traditions, primarily Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church, as well as some who do not identify with a particular faith.

Most of what I do in this role can be described as formation, whether academic, theological, personal, or relational. My job is to assist people to discover the Christian story of call and answer, of vocation and discernment, of knowing when to say no and when to say yes, of discovering who we are and what we will become. I am struck daily by the extraordinary fact that each and every human person – across and beyond particular faith traditions – yearns for this experience of formation.

As I prepare to become the foundation Vice-Chancellor of MCD University of Divinity from April 2012, the theme of formation sits uppermost in my thoughts.

Formation is not exclusive to theological education. The mission of all Universities is to shape a student experience bigger than a collection of individual subjects. Theology, however, has the longest and most vibrant tradition of thinking about teaching and learning, research and engagement, in terms of formation.

Formation is at the heart of MCD University. Historically, this is because most of our Colleges came into existence to train leaders for the churches and religious orders. Yet it is more than this. The study of divinity transforms not only the student but also the teacher and researcher. Such study compels us to pursue how faith in the sacred transforms practice and belief in the world.

It is for this reason that I believe passionately in the place of religion in public conversation. In contemporary Australian debates about religion in schools or same-sex marriage, I have argued consistently that a faith perspective, and in particular a Christian worldview, must be part of the conversation. I have also argued that religious arguments themselves should be free and open, with a variety of perspectives expressed, weighed and debated in search of truth and justice.

How does faith in the sacred transform practice and belief in the world? This is my starting point in beginning to imagine MCD University of Divinity, as we take up the extraordinary opportunity of being Australia’s first Specialised University.

We must become an institution that first and foremost fosters and creates informed public conversation about faith and belief. This means we have to equip our students – and our staff – with the rhetorical skills to communicate in a variety of ways in the twenty-first century world, from preaching and writing to blogging and tweeting. Students come to MCD University to learn theological content; we need to equip them to communicate theology, and to foster theological conversation and theological reflection, in academic monographs, sermons, blogs, opinion pieces, school classrooms, bible study groups, letter-writing, one-to-one conversation and more.

Our first task, then, is to develop new graduate attributes. What is the vision this University has for its graduates? Who do we want them to be, and what, consistently, do we want them to do in the world?

Alongside this task, we must foster public discussion of theology. We need to build a media profile. This could begin simply by putting a link on the front page of our website for journalists, identifying four or five faculty members who are available for interview. We might provide some coaching in communication for these faculty, taking up opportunities presented by recent initiatives such as The Conversation.

Public theology is not only about the media. My dream is to establish a Bachelor of Arts (Theology), or BA(Theol) at MCD University where students undertake a core group of units in Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology and Church History, but may include a major in Religious Studies, Psychology, History, or Journalism by taking units at other Universities, thereby broadening their capacity to engage in transformative public conversation.

The final area for action concerns MCD academic staff. We should focus on celebrating who we are as the staff of a unique University and embracing our many opportunities.

How, for example, do we recognise and maximise the fact that a large number of our teaching and research staff have fractional appointments, undertaking a wide range of other responsibilities beyond MCD? How might we rebuild the four ‘Fields’ of the old Melbourne College of Divinity as disciplinary clusters in the new University that encourage collaboration in teaching and research?

The future of MCD University depends on its academic staff, and as we become clearer about who we are, and what it means to be a staff member, we need to find ways to build up our future staff. We must seek opportunities to establish post-doctoral teaching and research fellowships for potential new staff, as we shepherd our senior staff towards winning ARC grants, especially linkage grants, where we demonstrate to the government, the churches, the public, and ourselves that we are equipped to do public theology that matters.

My vision for MCD University of Divinity in the next five years is to make it the leading institution in Australia for fostering public conversation about faith and belief with a view to transforming social, political, cultural and personal relationships.

To do this, I believe we need to create graduate attributes which shape all our teaching, to raise our profile in public media, with other universities, and with prospective students, and to be clear and confident about who we are as academics and who we will become as a distinctive university faculty.

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