Northern Ireland

Union Theological College in Belfast to partner with Catholic university

Union Theological College Image copyright Albert Bridge
Image caption Union Theological College is run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

A Presbyterian-run college in Belfast plans to link up with one of the UK's oldest Catholic universities.

Union Theological College (UTC) is seeking to partner with St Mary's University Twickenham to award undergraduate degrees.

St Mary's, which has 5,500 students, was founded in 1850 to meet increasing demand for Catholic teachers.

The Presbyterian General Assembly will make the final decision on the partnership arrangement.

Queen's University Belfast announced it was cutting ties with UTC in 2019 after a number of critical internal reviews.

The church subsequently claimed Queen's had taken the decision due to its stance on same-sex relationships.

Queen's said the move was down to academic concerns.

UTC trains some students for the Presbyterian ministry but the majority of its students studied for theology degrees at Queen's.

The Presbyterian Church's council for training in ministry held a special meeting on 14 February to discuss the future of UTC.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church will need to sign off the partnership

According to a briefing note prepared for the meeting, seen by BBC News NI, the college wants to partner with St Mary's University Twickenham to enable it to continue to offer undergraduate theology degrees.

The proposed arrangement would see St Mary's University "validate" undergraduate degrees offered by UTC.

That means St Mary's University would approve the academic standards of undergraduate degrees offered by UTC, but the college would retain control over the content of what was taught.

The briefing note said that several meetings had already been held between representatives from the two institutions.

'Moral issues'

"St Mary's, being itself a confessional university, understands fully our need to combine academic excellence with ministry formation," the briefing note said.

"There will be no issue with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's (PCI) understanding of moral issues."

The briefing note also said that while UTC was facing "a few years" of financial deficit following the end of its relationship with Queen's, it was projected to return to financial stability by 2025.

The Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Reverend Trevor Gribben, said it was necessary UTC maintained undergraduate degrees.

"Following a detailed process and discussions, it will be recommended to this year's General Assembly that a new undergraduate partnership should be developed with St Mary's University, Twickenham, through a validation arrangement," he said.

"Such a partnership, once agreed by the General Assembly and St Mary's, has the potential to lead to a new and exciting future for Union College."

Image caption Rev Trevor Gribben said the partnership would mean an "exciting future"

"This was the aspiration of last year's General Assembly, especially in terms of flexibility for training in ministry, an increased student experience and broader academic outcomes."

The principal of Union Theological College, the Very Reverend Professor Stafford Carson, also said the proposed arrangement would preserve UTC's identity and control of its academic courses.

"Just as importantly, it would also restore the option for young people from all backgrounds, including different denominations from across Northern Ireland, to study theology together at an undergraduate level," he said.

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