Thoughts on a UU Seminary in Australia

A longer version of the above 'blog commentary that was published in the ANZUUA newsletter.


By Lev Lafayette

At the recent ICUU/ANZUUA conference hosted in Brisbane, there was some discussion of the possibility of a Unitarian-Universalist seminary for Australia. “The time is right”, was a commonly expressed statement indicating a confidence in our current capacity and needs. There were also suggestions that an ICUU/ANZUUA-approved seminary process would ensure the highest possible quality of formal ministerialqualification. The following is a preliminary sketch of how ANZUUA might proceed with assistance from the ICUU in establishing such a seminary with some references to how such training is conducted at Meadville-Lombard and Starr King seminaries in the United States.

To begin, such a seminary must – like Meadville-Lombard and Starr King – aspire to the highest possible standards of professionalism, academic excellence and qualification. Unitarians and Universalists, within their respective dedications to rationality and social service, have historically sought this and there should be no move now towards lowering such standards. According to the Times Higher Education supplement, the top universities in the world have strong Unitarian and Universalist histories and associations. Unitarians secularised Harvard University (ranked 1st), holding the presidency from 1805 to 1933; California Institute of Technology (ranked 2nd) was founded by the Universalist, Amos G. Throop; and Stanford University’s (ranked 4th) first president was the Unitarian-Universalist, David Starr Jordan. Whilst it would be highly presumptuous of a UU Seminary in Australia to even make comparisons between itself and these great institutions, their dedication to the highest possible standards is certainly an intention worthy of emulation.

It is not surprising in that context that the recognised post-graduate qualification for ministry in Australia, Canada and the United States is a Master of Divinity (M.Div, Magister Divinitatis), the equivalent of two years’ full-time study with a Bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite. Using the standardised European system for higher education (the Bologna Accords), this would equate to approximately 1800 hours of study per annum. In this case, the six course areas would neatly equate with 300 hours of study per unit in the first year and the second year taken up by a 20,000 word thesis on a topic mutually agreed to by the student and their supervisor and approved by an academic board. As with contemporary Australian standards, all courses would be graded (HD, High Distinction, 80%+; D, Distinction 70-80%; C, Credit 60%-69%; P, Pass 50%-59%; and F, Fail, <50%), with assessment based on a combination of an essay of c. 3000 words, online tutorial participation and a short-answer based open-book exam. Emphasis should be given to proximal and network knowledge, rather than the individual and isolated variety, especially given the subject matter.

Following typical course and subject outlines, an Australian UU Masters in Divinity would include coursework in:

- church history and polity, the study of the development of Unitarianism and Universalism and governing institutions, local, national and international
- pastoral care and counselling, including leadership, social and moral education, behaviour management, emotional support, and psychology
- comparative religious theology, reviewing earth-centered and indigenous religious beliefs (especially of Australia and New Zealand), the Abrahamic religions (Judiaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahá’í), Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism), Taoic religions (Taoism, Shinto,
Confucianism, Cao Dai), reconstructionist paganism and humanist metaphysics, etc..
- ecclesiology, emphasising on the principles of Unitarian-Universalism, universal salvation through deeds, ‘the building of heaven on earth’, and the role of UU fellowships and leadership in achieving this, along with comparative criticism of other religious orientations.
- liturgical studies of services and addresses, ritualisation of life-events (birth, maturity, marriage, death, etc), and
- practicum, a period of internship with a strong emphasis on administration and financial management.

With regards to course delivery and cost, Meadville-Lombard and Starr King both have annual fees of about $15,000–$20,000 (US) per annum for online courses or $30,000–$40,000 for face-to-face campus tuition. In comparison, an MBA from Chifley Business School (a joint venture between La Trobe University and the Association of Professionals, Engineers, Managers and Scientists of Australia) via online delivery comes to a $1200 per unit (including the union membership discount), for a total cost of $19,200. It is probable that a similar fee structure would operate to pay for academic staff and the minimal administrative and technical services. In regards to the latter, there is already some exceptional products for the delivery of online courses, the most well-known being the Australian-led MOODLE (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), a free and open-source product with over 45,000 registered sites serving 32 million users in 3 million courses around the world, including prestigious institutions like the Australian National University, the University of South Australia, the London School of Economics, the Robert Gordon University of Aberdeen, and l’Université du Québec à Montréal. Finally, it is necessary that the qualification that we offer has the approval of the Australian government, specifically an Australian State or Territory government that accredits and recognises such qualifications.

Comparative institutions include theological colleges such as the Adelaide College of Divinity, the Australian College of Theology, the Australian Lutheran College, and the Melbourne College of Divinity. It is worth noting that, in addition to these well-regarded colleges, there are also quite a number of accredited institutes of higher education that have been accepted with a religious and invariably Christian orientation, but there is little for those whose spirituality does not bind them to a denominational creed. Auditing by the Australian Universities Quality Agency is also requisite for a UU divinity college for standards assurance; we may not have money or numbers but what we lack in both must be made up in the quality of our ministers – the best and the few.

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what we are doing this for. The Unitarian and Universalist religious perspective is a unique blend of rationality and justice, and is only found elsewhere, in part, at best. In establishing a seminary, ANZUUA would not just be producing a ‘factory’ to churn out ministers but would provide an outlet for the best religiously-informed individuals to act on contemporary secular issues with a Unitarian-Universalist perspective. Perhaps it is obvious to state but, if we do not offer this training, nobody else will do it for us. As much as the institutional formality of structured study is important, and the recognition of degree and title is a just reward for those who undertake such rigour to completion, there is another issue at stake, one perhaps best summarised by the popular book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. As the author correctly noted, it wasn’t an exceptional book about Zen or motorcycle maintenance, as such. But it did try to make some a serious contribution to the formation of values, and especially the notion of quality. It had these remarkable and inspiring words to say about places of higher education:

“The real University ... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.”

[Lev is a long-standing member of the Melbourne Unitarian Church who works as a systems administrator for scientific and high-performance computing. He is also a PhD candidate in Social Theory at the University of Melbourne even as he completes an MBA in Technology Management with the Chifley Business School.]

The Quest, Journal of the Australian-New Zealand Unitarian-Universalist Association, Spring Edition, 2010, pp4-5