Theology college provides union of hearts and minds
Union Theological College, devastated by a weekend blaze, was once the seat of Northern Ireland's Parliament. Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick reveals the history of a Belfast landmark
The Presbyterian College opened amid much rejoicing on Monday, December 5, 1853 as a training institution for potential Irish Presbyterian ministers. Nine students were enrolled.
Prior to 1876, Irish Presbyterians were denied access to divinity degrees in Ireland's only university, Trinity College, Dublin and would-be Presbyterian ministers invariably had to pursue appropriate, but expensive, education in the Scottish universities.
The greatest architect of his generation, Charles Lanyon, designed the building. With its distinctive classical frontage, it was constructed of Scrabo stone on a site that was then on the outskirts of Belfast, with uninterrupted views of the River Lagan to the south-east.
Lanyon also designed other notable Belfast buildings, such as the Palm House in Botanic Gardens in 1840, Queen's College in 1849, Crumlin Road Gaol in 1853 and the Customs House in 1856.
To the original college was added a dining room and student accommodation (in 1861) and a chapel (in 1881) thus producing the present 'horseshoe'-shaped building.
In 1921, the new Northern Ireland Parliament negotiated a three-year rental of the building, while Stormont was built. The building aspirations of the politicians - including the Prime Minister Lord Craigavon - proved to be wildly optimistic and the Parliament sat in the college from 1921 until 1932.
The Commons sat on the first floor (in the current library) and the Senate sat in the chapel. It was the college chapel, a large and very elegant wood-panelled room which today seats 150 students for lectures, that was most threatened by last weekend's fire, being connected to the extension destroyed by the fire.
Since the 1850s links between the Presbyterian College and Queen's College have been close, as evidenced in the early days by the fact that Professor Josias Porter lectured in the Presbyterian College (1860-78) before serving as president of Queen's College (1879-89).
Both the college (1881) and Queen's University (1908) have charters by which they can confer degrees. However, while the university is explicitly forbidden to spend public funds 'on the provision or maintenance of any theological or religious teaching or study,' the college is exclusive to the subject of theological degrees.
A happy and mutually productive accommodation was founded in 1927, when college and university entered into a formal arrangement which still operates today. The college agreed to provide facilities and staff to teach theology to Queen's students and the university agreed to confer degrees in theology. Today, Union College plays the leading role in the Queen's University Institute of Theology and has almost 300 theology students, representing 65% of all QUB theology students. The college library was founded in 1872 with a £1,500 bequest from Caroline Gamble in memory of her husband. Today the library occupies the entire first floor of the original main building, under the Lanyon dome.
The Gamble Library contains about 70,000 books and 20,000 pamphlets and is by far the largest theological library in Northern Ireland. In addition to several thousand pre-1800 items, there are about 1,000 titles in the periodicals collection and extensive archives, many of which are unique to Union College.
Two professional librarians preside over an annual book purchasing budget of £30,000, representing a valuable and ongoing commitment to provide essential resources for students.
In 1978 the two Irish Presbyterian colleges, in Belfast and Derry, amalgamated on the Belfast site with a new name, Union Theological College.
Since then theology has become an increasingly popular subject. While 20% of current Union students are studying to become Presbyterian ministers, the other 80% represent a rich diversity of backgrounds from all sides in our community.
Evening classes and a flexible timetable allow part-time students to obtain a theology degree over five years and a Monday evening A-level class in RE acts as an access course for individuals seeking admission to undergraduate theology courses.
In 2003, more than £2m was spent on upgrading the Union College buildings. Twenty-six individual student study bedrooms with ensuite facilities were provided and a new administration floor was created, including studies for five theological professors. The 2009 expansion was intended to provide extra staff and facilities.
This £2.2m project began in 2008 at the rear of the college campus, refurbishing an old principal's house with new additions and it was this building, due for completion at the end of November 2009, which was destroyed by fire last weekend.
Hopefully, a new resource centre will yet rise from the ashes.