Presbyterians contribute funding to new theology and public issues centre

By Amanda Wells

Generous donations from the estate of businessman Howard Paterson and the Synod of Otago and Southland will bankroll a theologically informed voice on social issues from the University of Otago.

The head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Professor Paul Trebilco, says the new Centre for Theology and Public Issues will view prominent social issues through a theological lens, collaborate with other disciplines to produce research, hold conferences, make submissions to select committees and generate comment for media.

The Howard Paterson Chair in Theology and Public Issues is being advertised at the moment, and Paul says it is hoped that the successful applicant would start in April or May 2008.
Paul says the work of public theology involves defining society as it is, rather than getting caught up in left or right arguments. The centre will focus on developing a respected voice that contributes to the public debate with both humility and confidence.

He says there exists an openness to a clearly articulated religious outlook. “If we do our homework well, there is an interest in what we have to say.”

“We will be up front that we are a centre for theology, having an explicitly Christian point of view.”

Issues up for discussion could encompass law and order, race relations, religious conflict and terrorism, the construction of good communities, poverty, and social welfare.

Howard Paterson, a businessman who died unexpectedly in 2003, had studied the phenomenology of religion at Otago and retained an interest in theology. The Paterson Charitable Trust has made a major donation towards the Centre, with support also coming from the Synod of Otago and Southland, and Southland businessman Ian Tulloch QSO and his wife Annette.

The Leading Thinkers initiative means the government matches every dollar of private contributions. Paul says the new centre was one of the last projects to secure this funding, which has seen 25 new positions created across the university.

The centre’s $1.175 million in private donations take its initial capital to $2.35 million.

Work on the centre, which will be based in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, started about three years ago. The Synod of Otago and Southland was the first to promise funding, as well as giving another grant recently.

Paul says having adequate start-up capital is significant because some centres in other countries have been bedevilled by the need to continually fundraise.

The centre will work with and serve the Churches, he says, with the intention to develop partnerships and work across denominations.

The chair will teach one paper a year, starting in the second semester next year. This paper will be on theology and public issues and offered through the distance teaching programme, for third and fourth year, with a different paper offered the following year. The chair will also supervise research and PhD students.

“Hopefully the staff numbers will grow through securing outside funding for research.”

Paul says one of the new appointment’s first tasks will be to establish which issues the centre will focus on in the first two or three years. He says the centre will develop a perspective that’s informed both by theology and by research in other areas. For example, a significant contribution to the environment debate needs to be informed both by a theological and public policy perspective.

Paul says there are many Christians working in different disciplines who have expressed interest in being part of this type of collaboration.

The centre will also be part of a global network of public theology that was established in May; a meeting which senior lecturer Murray Rae attended. Murray says there are three or four particularly well-established centres that provide useful models.

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