Jobwatch: Divine calling

August 27, 2004

The number of sixthformers opting for religious studies is rising, and Edinburgh University is responding to the renaissance by expanding its School of Divinity. Chris Johnston reports.

Religious studies recorded the largest rise in candidate numbers at A level this year, up by almost 14 per cent to more than 14,400 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Similarly, the number of applications to undergraduate courses at Edinburgh University's School of Divinity has risen this year, and next month's intake will exceed targets, according to David Fergusson, head of school.

He said the 7 to 8 per cent increase in the number of applications to Edinburgh reflected the rise in popularity of religious studies at A level as well as a new Higher option of religious, moral and philosophical studies. Another likely factor was the closure of divinity departments at a number of other universities.

Edinburgh advertised two lectureships, in religion and society and modern Judaism, in last week's Times Higher . The positions reflected a refocusing of areas of expertise in the school, Professor Fergusson said.

The modern Judaism post is a reflection that those at the school, one of the largest in Britain with more than 450 undergraduates and 70 graduate students, realise that there is more interest in contemporary affairs than in biblical studies. Professor Fergusson said Holocaust studies and the role of religion in the politics of the Middle East were other popular options.

Candidates with expertise in Hebrew or in medieval Judaism could be given preference.

A growing number of students on other courses, such as politics and international relations, are interested in taking subjects offered by the school. The successful applicant for the lectureship in religion and society will teach these students as well as those on the school's own degree courses.

Professor Fergusson said the world was still "furiously religious", to use the words of one commentator, and accepted the irony of the sharply escalating interest in religion, ethics and spirituality at a time when church attendance in Britain was declining.

"We are also seeing a growing curiosity in the history of the Christian faith because this generation is not overly familiar with the ways of the church and there is a sense that some now want to find out for themselves," he said.

The School of Divinity's student profile is more diverse than it was 20 years ago and it now trains far fewer people for ordination.

A strong field of candidates for both positions is expected and a number of overseas applications are likely for the Judaism post in particular.

The successful candidates will join the staff of 26 full-time academics housed in the school's Edinburgh's city-centre building. The school also accommodates Britain's largest theological library.


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