A SEMINARIAN studying theology on his way to the priesthood in Queensland is likely to have a Uniting Church student on one side in the classroom and an Anglican on the other.
Such is the ecumenical heart of the Brisbane College of Theology (BCT), where those preparing for ordination, along with a large number of lay and religious students, receive tertiary education in theology.
BCT is a consortium of St Paul’s Theological College (Catholic), St Francis’ Theological College (Anglican) and Trinity Theological College (Uniting Church).
Inaugurated by the three denominations on March 28, 1983, BCT will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a combined graduation ceremony and dinner on May 30.
BCT dean, Dr John Fanshawe, said a typical BCT class would have a blend of Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church students, and there may be a student from another tradition such as Lutheran, Baptist or Church of Christ.
‘The blend adds to the richness of education,’ Dr Fanshawe said.
The principals of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church colleges rated the ecumenical nature of BCT as one of its major attributes.
Each of the schools contribute teachers for BCT which has 220 students – about a third of whom are officially working towards ordained ministry, with the others enrolled as ‘general academic students’.
St Paul’s Theological College principal, Fr Ormond Rush, who is also BCT president and a former dean of the college, said that from a Catholic perspective, one of the exciting things about BCT was that it allowed the opportunity for the Catholic tradition to be studied within an ecumenical context.
Fr Rush said this promoted a greater awareness of ‘the importance of the Churches working together as we work towards full communion’.
‘In south-east Queensland, BCT is a significant factor in breaking down the divisions caused by misunderstandings in the past,’ he said.
‘In the future, it will have a vital part in the Churches coming together.’
Fr Rush said one of BCT’s great strengths was the co-operation between the three colleges.
‘We’re a close faculty. We’re not just colleagues but friends, and that’s picked up by the students.’
St Francis’ principal, Anglican Fr Don Edwards, also nominated ecumenical co-operation as one of BCT’s key achievements. ‘We have people from the different Churches who study and explore their faith together.’
Fr Edwards said that tended to encourage co-operation among the Churches at the grassroots.
That had been the experience at a practical level when people from different Churches who had studied together at BCT have found themselves in the same town in ministry.
‘Each student studies their own tradition but also comes to know, respect and value other traditions,’ Fr Edwards said.
He said the students and staff occasionally had combined worship and that was important, as well as studying together.
Fr Edwards said he had appreciated working with staff members from other Church backgrounds, ‘recognising what we share and where we diverge’.
Trinity principal, Dr Sue Fairley, said it was worth celebrating that, for 20 years, the three Churches had been able to co-operate in the area of providing theological education.
‘The fact we’ve got students from the three Churches learning and interacting together – that’s a major thing,’ she said.
She also recognised the value of that experience when former students from different traditions were reacquainted out in the parishes.
Dr Fanshawe said each Church taught their students specific subjects from their own tradition but that amounted to only about 5 per cent of the overall program.
Anything that was taught at a tertiary level – subjects with tertiary accreditation from the Office of Higher Education – came under the BCT umbrella.
The decision of the three Churches to form a consortium of colleges was a recognition there was much they held in common, Dr Fanshawe said.
He said the make up of BCT’s student body had changed greatly since 1983.
‘Most of the students then would have been training for the priesthood or ordained ministry,’ he said.
‘Now the college still does that, and that’s still a very important part of its role, but students training for ministry are outnumbered by lay people.
‘It’s all the people sitting out in the churches at weekends who want to learn more about their faith and want to do that from an academic perspective. Again, that’s enriching.’
Dr Fanshawe said it often happened that students in their 30s and 40s, who initially had not had a commitment to priesthood or ordained ministry, came around to considering the possibility as they progressed through their studies.
‘Many will do the academic program as a lay student and, towards the end of their program, will approach their Church and express the desire to become an ordained minister,’ he said.
‘What all students have in common is they have a desire to know more about their faith and they want to achieve their learning in an academic context.
‘At the end of the day that opens up new possibilities – and many of them working for their Churches.’
Enrolments had risen by 25 per cent from last year, and Dr Fanshawe said this increase was experienced across all three denominations.
About 80 students were Catholic, 80 from the Uniting Church and 60 Anglican.
BCT has an affiliation with Griffith University’s School of Theology where doctoral studies can be pursued.
The Griffith school is staffed by teachers from BCT.
Fr Rush said the collocation of St Paul’s with Australian Catholic University’s new McAuley campus at Banyo also opened up exciting possibilities for BCT.
Further developing that relationship was one of the challenges he was keen to pursue.
Fr Edwards said another challenge was to spread the word about what BCT had to offer.
‘BCT and its member schools are some of the best kept secrets in the Churches,’ he said.
Dr Fairley said her hope was that the increase in enrolments would continue and that more people would see theological education as something they would want to pursue.
Brisbane College of Theology’s graduation ceremony and 20th anniversary dinner will be held at Queensland University of Technology’s Kelvin Grove campus on May 30.
Retired Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who is the former president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, will be guest speaker at the graduation.
Guest speaker at the dinner will be Caboolture parish priest, Fr Wrex Woolnough, who was involved in the establishment of BCT and was one its lecturers for many years.