Christian colleges: our higher purpose

November 30, 2007

Council of Church Colleges and Universities debates its role in a changing world. Melanie Newman reports. Christian universities are divided over the role that their religious mission should play in an era of consumerism and globalisation.

At a Council of Church Colleges and Universities (CCCU) debate last week, some delegates blamed the Christian church itself for a lack of vision for its 16 member institutions.

Universities in general are taking all religions more seriously, said David Grace, head of the Institute of Education's new Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education, largely because Muslim students had "put religion back on the agenda". While this was welcome, he said, it posed questions as to how Christian institutions could "go on being distinctive".

Several delegates warned of the danger of the group attaching too much weight to a Christian ethos.

Tom Wheeler, vice-chancellor of Chester University, said that larger institutions would struggle to sustain an "overtly Christian nature". Marketing the group as "Cathedral universities" had been discussed, he added.

Patricia Broadfoot, vice-chancellor of Gloucestershire University, spoke of her "personal struggle" to manage the institution's religious dimension in the face of external pressures such as consumerism, globalisation and increasing diversity of race and religion.

Church universities should provide an alternative to the "obsession with a scientific solution to the problems of the age" and strive to bring about ethical, moral and spiritual transformation in students, she said.

This transformation did not have to be overtly Christian: "Lots of our students have other faiths. We have to find a framework for everyone to be personally transformed in their own way."

Dr Broadfoot said that this was not a clear objective of the university "and that is why I am struggling towards what that means in practice. The church is not helping."

The Christian church was also criticised by Reverend Janina Ainsworth, general secretary of the National Society for Promoting Religious Education. "The church is nowhere near articulating what it wants the higher education system to do," she said.

Philip Rogerson, vice-chair of governors at Newman University College in Birmingham, a Roman Catholic institution, disagreed. He suggested that the church showed a "clear way" of achieving personal transformation through Christ.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, joint patron of church colleges and universities, said church universities should aim to improve students' ability to understand the "ABCs of religious truth" and should not separate the spiritual from the religious. "The spiritual can only be lived in religion, otherwise it is self-indulgence," he said.

The role of a church college may be to "defend key human values against contrary trends", he said. "Current legislative proposals suggest we are moving into areas of genetic engineering with which the Christian faith is in sharp opposition."

Jeremy Clines, chaplain at York St John University, said that that the Christian church's own denominational splits were the "elephant in the room", and it was not surprising that there were divisions in higher education.

"The church doesn't have a common view on issues such as genetic engineering," he said.

Pamela Taylor, incoming CCCU chair, surmised that there would "never be an absolute answer" and that this was appropriate for a group of universities she called "post-fundamentalist".

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk.

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