The headlines over the weekend cited 800 years of tradition, but may have overstated the extent to which the ancient Oxford University is changing to accommodate the changing times around its Theology department.
Christian Today declared that “Christianity is no longer compulsory for Oxford Theology students”. The Telegraph went with “Oxford theology students can skip Christianity lessons”. While the Christian Post declared “After 800 Years, Oxford Theology Students to Swap Christianity for Feminism, Buddhism, Islam Studies.”
Reading beyond the headlines, the changes may not be quite as dramatic as they first appear. The Times Higher Education magazine explored the reasoning behind the headlines, citing
changes – about to be made – to one of the oldest courses in the country, theology at Oxford… After seven years of consultation, a new course will be arriving in September 2017 under the name “theology and religion” for the first time.
Johannes Zachhuber, professor of historical and systematic theology and the theology faculty’s board chairman, said that the name change “was the moment we chose to recognise things really have become different”. While options to study “other” religions are certainly not new, compulsory Christianity papers will be gone by the second year so students can avoid studying the religion altogether and take papers such as “feminist approaches to theology and religion”, or “Buddhism in space and time”, should they so wish.
Professor Zachhuber said that the changes have been instigated by students and lecturers. “We recognise that the people who come to study at Oxford come from a variety of different backgrounds and have legitimately different interests,” he said. “They come from the respected communities of Britain.”
The teaching faculty has changed too. A “massive generational turnover” of lecturers saw one-third of posts filled by often younger staff who have their own research interests.
“If you have a very rigid curriculum, there will be an increasing mismatch between what lecturers are doing in their research time and what they’re having to teach,” explained Professor Zachhuber.
But the Telegraph reported an Oxford University spokesman saying that
“Christianity is still compulsory in the first year of the course – in fact there are two compulsory papers on it. So all students on the course will study Christianity.
“Christianity is still a major part of the course in second and third year, and it’s very unlikely that a student would choose options that do not cover Christianity in these years.”
See the original Times Higher Education article here.
Featured image: detail from the chapel of Keble College, Oxford