“Divinity School,” “School of Divinity,” and American Confusion
In a session at the recent SBL annual meeting in which I served as a panel-reviewer of a recently published book, the discussion descended into speculations about how the views of panellists were shaped by whether they taught in a public university or a “Divinity School” (i.e., theological seminary preparing individuals for Christian ministry). And it became clear that the other panellists thought that I was attached to the latter type of institution, which meant that I was supposedly working from some different set of presumptions than the other panellist. So, some clarification is needed.
First, as for me, I last taught in a theological college with a faith-commitment in 1978. Thereafter, I taught for 18 years in the University of Manitoba, Department of Religion (the major public university of Manitoba). Then, from 1996 to 2011 I was Professor in the University of Edinburgh, a public-funded British university, not a church-related university.
Second, the “School of Divinity” of the University of Edinburgh isn’t a “Divinity School” in the American sense. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit, so I’ll explain things. All major units of the University of Edinburgh are “Schools.” And “Divinity” is the old Scottish term equivalent to “Theology.” Out of a sense of tradition, the term has been retained for our “School.” (I guess this is another example of the old quip that the USA and Britain are two societies divided by a common language!)
But there is no confessional test for academic staff or students, and our main teaching “business” is about 300 undergraduate students (“majors” in the American sense), making us one of the largest units for the academic study of religions in the UK. (These include maybe 30 or so who are taking courses for academic preparation for church ministry.) In addition, with about 80-90 PhD students and about 40-50 masters degree students, we’re one of the largest postgraduate centres in religion study in the UK.
Our academic staff (about 30) have a diversity of individual stances on matters religious: some are various kinds of Christians, others no religious affiliation, and others Muslim and Jewish. Our courses likewise involve the study of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, aboriginal, and other religious traditions and phenomena. So, you should really think of the “School of Divinity” here as a massive department for the study of religions, with a small “nested” degree programme for academic preparation for ministry, and a large postgraduate population too.
Also, brushing off someone’s arguments on the basis of the kind of institution they work in is, in my view, pretty silly. In any case, I’m retired since 2011, so I don’t work for any institution! But, to repeat the point to ensure clarity, the “School of Divinity” here isn’t a “Divinity School.”