Christianity Pared Down in Theology Studies at Oxford

By Penny Starr | April 4, 2016 | 5:33pm EDT
Oxford University is the oldest institution of higher learning in the English-speaking world. (Photo: Oxford University Images/Rob Judges Photography)

The publication date was April 1, but London’s Daily Telegraph was not joking when it reported on April Fool’s Day on changes taking place in Oxford University curriculum for theology studies.

“Theology students at Oxford will no longer be required to study Christianity throughout the course for the first time in 800 years after undergraduates complained about lack of diversity,” the paper reported.

“Changes are being made to the degree to mirror shifts in religious beliefs and culture in the wider British society, according to academics,” it said.

“Instead, those in second year will have the option to take papers which will include ‘feminist approaches to religion and theology,’” said the Telegraph article, based on a report in Times Higher Education magazine.

“Johannes Zachhuber, professor of historical and systematic theology and the theology faculty’s board chairman, suggested students could avoid studying Christianity altogether and instead favor [a] subject such as ‘Buddhism in space and time.’”

But, according to the Telegraph, Zachjuber said it was unlikely that many students would choose to ignore all Christian elements of the degree.

“We recognize that the people who come to study at Oxford come from a variety of different backgrounds and have legitimately different interests,” Zachjuber said. “They come from the respected communities of Britain.”

“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.”

Zachjuber said that a “massive generational turnover” of lecturers was a trigger for one third of posts being filled by often younger staff.

“The major driver for change for theology and religion  is the dramatic change in the way religion is seen and practiced in the UK.  The dominance of the Church of England has been receding but at the same time religion hasn’t disappeared. We want to offer to potential students what is interesting for them and that has changed a lot in the last 30 years.”

However, an Oxford University spokesman said that theology students would still have to study Christianity in their first year of study.

“Christianity is still compulsory in the first year of the course – in fact there are two compulsory papers on it,” the Telegraph quoted the spokesman as saying. “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,” the spokesman said.

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