Prayers for improved score go unanswered

December 14, 2001

We visited six departments before today's results were announced to find out how they were preparing for the RAE.

Leeds University: Theology
1996: 4, 2001: 4 Staff: 13 (full-time equivalent)

Theologians reach their peak in their 60s and 70s, according to Hugh Pyper, head of Leeds University's School of Theology and Religious Studies. This is in marked contrast to, say, mathematicians who are more likely to perform at their best at a considerably younger age.

"This is a subject where the lived experience, and the long - very long - acquaintance with literature combines with thousands of years of traditions," Dr Pyper said. "The five-year bites offered by the RAE, therefore, are not terribly useful to us."

Nevertheless, the school's staff have made the best of their much reduced timetable for working. "In theology people like to live with their work for a long time, especially when they are dealing with really big ideas that have significant ramifications. After all, we are still using books that are more than 2,000 years old - there can't be many academics who would celebrate that."

What must be avoided, Dr Pyper stressed, was the publication of work that is not ready, that is in too raw a state. "Sometimes putting on the pressure can be a positive influence but this can be at the cost of maturer reflection on longer-term projects. There is an overwhelming sense of running in order merely to stand still."

The school has more than 100 postgraduates and a good proportion are international students. Research interests are broad. Publications this year have, for instance, covered postmodern interpretations of the Bible; African Christian communities in Europe; and an anthology of worship material on sexuality.

The school did not bring in academic "stars" specifically, although it was hoping to improve on its 4 rating. "We have a longer term strategy of encouraging younger people at the start of their careers, which is vital to the future of the discipline," Dr Pyper said.

He welcomed the renewed popular interest in theology, but said that in mainstream British intellectual life, theologians had to overcome a deeply embedded suspicion.

"We have to accept that the chattering classes are secularised and there is the sense that religion can be accounted for in a reductionist way, and that real thinking people do not fall for it."

But much of the school's work is highly pertinent - the Institute for Advanced Research in Religion, Ethics and Public Life is planning a colloquium on Christian and Muslim concepts of "just war", for example.

"We hope the school achieves a balance between the exploration of religions from the inside while fostering an understanding of the place of religion in the world as a human phenomenon," Dr Pyper said.

RAE 2001 league tables

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