Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Presbyterian college must adopt the same liberal values as Queen's or be cast aside

Pioneering writer Helen Waddell could teach zealots a thing or two about equality, says Fionola Meredith

Last week, I returned to Queen’s University to watch my son graduate. I say returned because in some ways I feel I’ve never left my alma mater: the vital things that I learned there, and the men and women who taught me them, stay with me always. So, it was very special to see my son become one of the fortunate people who have passed through its halls. 

Watching the formal academic procession leave the Whitla Hall after the ceremony, my thoughts turned to Helen Waddell, as they often do when I’m at Queen’s.

Waddell, who was one of the first great wave of women to go to Queen’s after the university started admitting female students in 1882, is a personal heroine of mine.

To me, she embodies the spirit of intellectual endeavour, openness and curiosity that is at the heart of a great university education.

Helen was a writer, a poet and a medieval scholar, and although she has been largely forgotten today, she was one of the biggest literary stars of the 1920s and 30s. Her historical novel, Peter Abelard, was a runaway success, praised by everyone from Queen Mary to factory workers and prisoners.

More than that, she was an extraordinary human being. You can tell from the letters she wrote to her sister Meg, back home at Kilmacrew House, near Banbridge: they are brimming with wit and mischief and compassion.

Men frequently fell in love with Helen, and it’s easy to see why.

She came from deep Presbyterian roots.

Her father was a Presbyterian missionary, and her grandfather and her brother were Presbyterian ministers. Hers was an open-minded, liberal and erudite faith.

I wonder what Helen Waddell would have made of the current controversy engulfing the Presbyterian-run Union Theological College (UTC), which delivers Queen’s undergraduate theology degrees.

A review by a panel of senior academics at Queen’s has raised concerns about the diversity of teaching available at UTC.

These issues are so serious that the university has decided it will not be accepting new theology students to the “highly problematic” college in 2019.

A key point is the lack of female lecturers. All the full-time teaching staff at UTC are male and, as the report noted, are “predominantly from a Presbyterian background”.

There’s no plan to address this.

So, why the mysterious absence of women from the full-time teaching faculty?

Just a throwaway thought, but could it possibly be anything to do with the fact that the college’s principal, the Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, does not support the ordination of women ministers?

Dr Carson believes that women should not preach or teach — activities which should be reserved solely for men.

He calls that being a “complementarian”.

Defending the indefensible lack of women lecturers at UTC, Dr Carson told the BBC’s Sunday Sequence programme last year: “It’s just been the case that we haven’t had any suitably qualified candidates.”

Remarkable. Think of all the women across the world who have taken their degrees since Helen Waddell’s day, and reached the highest levels of academic distinction.

Yet not one of them is “suitably qualified” to teach theology at UTC?

I first became aware of Dr Carson’s existence back in 2007, when he was minister of First Portadown Presbyterian church.

For over 60 years, First Portadown shared its Christmas Day service with the nearby Armagh Road church. Not that year though, because the Rev Carson would not “in conscience” allow the minister of Armagh Road into his pulpit.

Why? It’s because the church’s minister was — yes, you’ve guessed it — a woman: the Rev Christina Bradley.

This year, Dr Carson returned to the headlines when the doctrinal committee of the Presbyterian Church, of which he is convenor, came up with the idea of denying communion to same-sex partners and baptism to their children.

If Dr Carson and his associates are intent on turning Irish Presbyterianism into some kind of ‘purified’ fundamentalist fiefdom, hostile to women and LGBT people, that is their own regrettable business.

But Union Theological College is an entirely different matter.

As a publicly funded institution, formally connected with Queen’s, the college must embody the same liberal virtues of academic freedom, independence and diversity.

Otherwise the connection cannot be allowed to continue.

A recent BBC documentary about Helen Waddell remains available on the iPlayer.

I suggest that Dr Carson and his all-male team make some time to watch it over the Christmas holidays.

You never know, they might learn something from this woman.

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