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Union Theological College

Coordinates: 54°35′06″N 5°55′52″W / 54.585°N 5.931°W / 54.585; -5.931
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Union Theological College
MottoLatin: "Veritatem eme et noli vendere"
Motto in English
"Buy the truth and sell it not" (taken from Proverbs 23:23)
Established1853; 171 years ago (1853) (Assembly's College)
Academic affiliation
Queen's University Belfast (1926-2021)
St Mary's University, Twickenham(1921- )
PrincipalMichael McClenahan
108 Botanic Avenue
, ,
54°35′06″N 5°55′52″W / 54.585°N 5.931°W / 54.585; -5.931
AffiliationsPresbyterian Church in Ireland

Union Theological College is the theological college for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and is situated in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is governed by the Council for Training in Ministry. It has been responsible for training people for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and also runs courses open to the wider public, including distance learning courses offered through BibleMesh.

The professors of the college constitute the Presbyterian Theological Faculty of Ireland (PTFI) which holds a Royal Charter to award postgraduate degrees.

The majority of ministers and deaconesses for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are trained at the college, but the church also recognises training at an unspecified number of "recognised colleges" elsewhere.[1]


The building, circa 1860-1880.

The Assembly's College[edit]

The college was founded in 1853 as the Assembly's College. The Renaissance Revival style building with its grand Doric porch and Baroque attic was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, the architect of the main building at Queen's and built with Scrabo stone at a cost of £5,000.[2] Merle d'Aubigné of Geneva participated in the opening ceremony on 5 December 1853 alongside Henry Cooke, President of the Faculty (the five other professors in the new college were John Edgar, Robert Wilson, William Killen, James G. Murphy and William Gibson).

There was a large influx of students in the wake of the 1859 Revival and the south wing with its dining hall and student accommodation ("Chambers") was added in 1869.[3] Princeton seminary had an important influence in the shaping of the ethos of the college during this period: the Rev. Roberts Watts who was appointed Professor of Systematic Theology in 1866 hoped to make "Belfast another Princeton".[4] The north wing with its wood-panelled chapel was designed by John Lanyon, son of original architect, and completed in 1881.[5] The first degrees under the royal charter were conferred in 1883.[6] However, the death of Watts in 1895 marked the beginning of the end of the Princetonian influence.[7] A partial union took place between the faculties in Belfast and Magee in 1922.

The Commons.
The Senate.

The newly formed Parliament of Northern Ireland met in the Assembly's College from 1921 until 1932 while Stormont was being built: the Commons met in the Gamble Library and the Senate in the college chapel.[8] During this period the college conducted classes in a house and provided library resources in a house on University Square.

In 1926 the college became a Recognised College of Queen's University[9] but the college then came under criticism for its embrace of theological liberalism. This culminated in a charge of heresy being brought against Professor J. Ernest Davey in 1926-27 and a heresy trial in 1927 because of his teaching in the College.[10] The five charges were summarised in the minutes of the General Assembly as follows:

  1. The first charge alleges that Professor Davey denies that 'God pardoneth all our sins and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputes to us.'
  2. The second charge alleges that Professor Davey taught what is contrary to Holy Scripture concerning the absolute perfection of our Lord's character.
  3. The third charge alleges that Professor Davey taught what is contrary to the Word of God and the Westminster Confession of Faith regarding the inspiration, infallibility, and Divine authority of Holy Scriptures,
  4. The fourth charge alleges that Professor Davey taught what is contrary to the doctrine that 'the sinfulness of all sins proceedeth only from the creature and not from God.'
  5. The fifth charge alleges that Professor Davey held and taught that the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in the Word of God.[11]

Although cleared by the Church's courts, a small number of Presbyterians broke away unhappy with the decision and founded what later became the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.[12]

The college officially reopened in October 1932 and the inaugural lecture was delivered by the Scottish Historian Robert Rait.[13] Between 1941 and 1948 the city police used the college as its own headquarters were bombed in the Belfast Blitz. In 1953, to mark the College's centenary year, Prof. Davey was elected Moderator of the General Assembly.[14]

The Union Theological College[edit]

Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Act 1978
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to provide for the establishment of The Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; to declare the trusts upon which the property of The Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland shall be held; to make provision for the management and operation of The Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; to provide for the transfer of the assets and liabilities of The Presbyterian College, Belfast, and the Magee Theological College, Londonderry, to the Trustees of The Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; and for other purposes.
Citation1978 c. v
Royal assent30 June 1978
Text of statute as originally enacted

In 1976 theological teaching at Magee College in Derry ceased and the two colleges amalgamated in 1978. The new college, constituted by an act of Parliament, the Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Act 1978 (c. v), was named the Union Theological College.[15] John M. Barkley was Professor of Church History from 1954 until his retirement in 1981 (Principal 1976-1981) and was succeeded by Finlay Holmes (Principal 1987-1992). Laurence Kirkpatrick was subsequently appointed Professor of Church history in 1996 (Principal 2008-2010).

In 2003 the college celebrated its 150th anniversary by completing a £2.8million pound refurbishment in which individual study bedrooms with ensuite facilities were added. Alister E. McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford gave a public lecture entitled "Renewing our vision for the future of Protestant Christianity in Northern Ireland". Bill Addley retired as Professor of Practical Theology in 2006 and the vacated chair was filled by Drew Gibson. Cecil McCullough, Professor of New Testament, who served as Principal from 1998 to 2002, retired in 2007 and was succeeded in the chair by Gordon Campbell.

Sign formerly visible outside Union Theological College, displaying previous logo and brief details of history.

On 14 November 2009 a fire caused serious damage to the rear of the college during the refurbishment of the Principal's House (a £2.2million project).[5][16] The extension known as the Training Resource Centre, providing further lecture and seminar rooms, was subsequently opened in September 2011.[17] Stafford Carson was appointed as a new executive principal in 2013. At this time a major stonework restoration and conservation project took place (2013-2017).[18] Patton Taylor retired as Professor of Old Testament in 2016 (Principal 2002-2008 and 2010-2013).

In 2017 the college marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by participating in a "Luther 500" conference and by hosting an autumn seminar series entitled "The Unfinished Reformation".[19] The Welsh Presbyterian theologian Stephen N. Williams, who had held the Chair of Systematic Theology from 1994, was succeeded in 2017 by Michael McClenahan.

In 2018 there was "a refresh of the College's Coat of Arms" with the help of a digital heraldic artist, including discussion of the motto to "buy the truth and sell it not".[20] The shield of this coat of arms[21] was then incorporated into a new logo, featuring two drinking horns above a burning bush. The logo was changed again in 2022, emphasising the year of the college's foundation but removing the motto.

Breaking of links with Queen's University Belfast[edit]

In 2016, Queen's University Belfast undertook a strategic review of the teaching of Theology as all new undergraduate students were then taught at Union Theological College, noting decline in the overall number of students studying theology at the four Theological Colleges, and expressing concerns regarding the diversity of provision compared to Theology and Religions departments in other UK Universities, while also highlighting "excellent student satisfaction rates" and recommending that future plans include "as many aspects of its current undergraduate provision via UTC as possible (community-mindedness, well-cared for student body, a fine library and library culture, and a real sense of the scholastics in ministry)."[22] The review also raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the faculty, noting that "there are now no full-time female members of staff teaching on the undergraduate programmes" and that the full-time teaching staff "are all male and from a Presbyterian background", with a requirement that they "be committed to working within the Christian ethos and doctrinal framework of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland". It was also noted that any Professorial appointment must be an ordained minister in the Church, or eligible to become such.[22]

Promotional jute bag for Union Theological College, displaying the logo previously in use from 2018 to 2022.

In 2018 the Professor of Church History was controversially suspended pursuant to his participation in a radio interview.[23] A subsequent QAA report that was described by journalists as "highly critical" expressed concerns regarding "weakness in the college's maintenance of academic standards", with "the potential to put academic standards and quality at risk".[24][25] However the QAA themselves in a subsequent report in 2021 highlighted the good standard of teaching and achievement in the college despite the pressure of Covid, saying "Students are clear about how assessment is organised and how assessments have been graded. The College describes the 2019-20 cohort's achievement as commendable with, of the 41 students who graduated, seven achieving a first-class honours degree (17%), 31 a 2.1 (76%) and three a 2.2 (7%). Those figures compare favourably to the previous five years." and "External examiners have commented favourably on the teaching and learning support provided to the students during the pandemic and have confirmed the standards and comparability of awards."[26]

In 2019, Queen's University Belfast Senate approved a recommendation from the Academic Council regarding the Institute of Theology, with the result that the University would no longer offer Theology degrees, ending its relationship with all four Theological Colleges in the Institute of Theology, including Union Theological College.[27][28] As tuition fees for 2018/19 were set at £4,160 annually, the projected annual financial shortfall to the college was estimated to be as high as £700,000 on the assumption that over 150 undergraduate students might normally be admitted in a given year.[29] While student numbers enrolled in the colleges of the Institute of Theology had declined significantly in latter years,[22][30] numbers in the College had seen a smaller decrease, from 264 in 2012[31] to 233 in 2017.[32] It was subsequently argued that the immediately foreseeable shortfall in the absence of any new income streams would be £250,000 by 2022.[33]

Until 2021, the college had provided teaching and assessment for undergraduate and postgraduate awards offered through the Institute of Theology at Queen's University Belfast.[34] Whereas a wider range of modules was offered to students in the past, previously including a "Graduate Certificate in Youth Ministry programme",[35] the range of available modules had latterly been restricted "for reasons of financial viability".[36] In its 2021 report the QAA stated that "the College acknowledged that offering a full range of modules has been difficult to resolve for reasons of financial viability. It was further recognised by the senior team and staff, that greater and better use could be made of PTFI student representatives. However, students are largely satisfied with the variety of both formal and informal feedback mechanisms and described tutors as attentive and helpful."[37]

Dismissal of a professor[edit]

In 2019 the Professor of Church History and former principal, Laurence Kirkpatrick, was dismissed for gross misconduct.[38] This attracted considerable comment in local media[39][40][41][42] and some comment in international media[43] and was reported to be a factor in the decision by Queen's University to review the nature of its relationship with the College.[44]

Professor Kirkpatrick was suspended in 2018 from teaching largely in response to remarks on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme in June 2018, and subsequently dismissed by the college in 2019, after 22 years of teaching, as aspects of his radio interview were judged to constitute "gross misconduct". Specifically, a disciplinary panel held that a statement about same-sex relationships which was not aligned with the doctrinal position of the professor's employer was a serious breach of discipline, as was a failure to defend the college's reputation when its link to Queen's University Belfast was questioned.[45][46]

The dismissal prompted public debate about academic freedom in the college and the freedom of ministers in the church to disagree with church policy. Former Presbyterian ministers who had since left to pursue other careers, such as Richard Hill[47] and Roy Simpson[48] accused the church of 'stifling public debate', and Ian Hazlett, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow, where he had supervised Professor Kirkpatrick's doctoral studies, said that the 'semi-secret plotting' that led to "Laurence Kirkpatrick's dismissal from his academic post by non-academic churchmen reminded him 'in some respects of the Inquisition.'[49] Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly refuted these claims in an interview on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence, saying 'people are free to debate in public, it is the nature of that discourse that is important … When we speak about one another and to one another, particularly as Christians, we need to do that in courteous and constructive ways.'[50]

New partnerships in the post-Queen's era[edit]

Following the breaking of links with Queen's University, teaching for postgraduate degrees is delivered in partnership with the international institution, BibleMesh,[51] and the degrees are awarded by the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland.[52]

In 2020 Union Theological College announced it would partner with the Roman Catholic St Mary's University, Twickenham for the awarding of undergraduate degrees.[53] The General Assembly was not able to meet in 2020 to discuss the proposed partnership due to COVID-19 but the members of the Assembly authorised a Standing Commission to conduct business on its behalf.[54] The Presbyterian Church addressed potential concerns about degrees from a Presbyterian college being validated by a Catholic university which is committed to the mission of the Catholic Church in higher education[55] by saying that "It's a validation arrangement, with the college still being able to retain its reformed and evangelical identity, which will be respected by St Mary's, who will continue with their Catholic identity - but we'll both share a Christian ethos and the values that we share with all Christians. That is an important new development for Union College and it's a positive sign for the new Northern Ireland where such sectarian divisions are perhaps a thing of the past."[56]

The Presbyterian Theological Faculty of Ireland had been granted a Royal Charter in 1881 to confer postgraduate academic degrees.[57] A Supplemental Charter was granted in 2021 to modernise the original charter.[58]

In February 2022, it was announced that the college would be working with the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge to develop a cohort of supervisors who will supervise PhD studies for the college.[59]

A further collaboration was announced in January 2023 between Union Theological College and the Davenant Institute's Davenant Hall.[60] Students in Davenant Hall's M.Litt. degree program will now have the opportunity to continue their studies at the Ph.D. level at Union Theological College, while still being supervised by Davenant Hall faculty. It was announced that to facilitate this, five of Davenant Hall's leading instructors (Matthew Hoskin, Joseph Minich, Bradford Littlejohn, Michael Lynch, and Alastair Roberts) would join the faculty of Union Theological College to supervise Ph.D. research within their fields of expertise.


The faculty currently comprises two professors respectively leading extant academic departments,[61] a "non-academic" Professor of Ministry,[62][63] a senior lecturer in Biblical Studies, a lecturer in Historical Theology, a lecturer in New Testament and a lecturer in Practical Theology. Prof. W. Gordon Campbell became principal of the college in 2021.[64]

Notable faculty[edit]

Notable former faculty[edit]


Founded in 1873 by Mrs Caroline Gamble in memory of her late husband, the Rev. Henry Gamble (not to be confused with an Anglican priest of the same name), the college Library is the largest theological library in Northern Ireland. The Gamble Library stocks over 65,000 books, 20,000 pamphlets and taking over 50 journals and periodicals. The domed library served as the Chamber of the House of Commons for the Northern Ireland Parliament from 1921 to 1932. The foundation of the collection predates the college and was formed in 1845.[66] A significant collection was acquired from the estate of the Presbyterian historian Rev. James Seaton Reid (d. 1851). Much of the Magee College pamphlet collection was added in 1977.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ordained Ministry Training". Union Theological College. Retrieved 1 February 2023.
  2. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan. p. 90.
  3. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan & Son. p. 98.
  4. ^ Livingstone, David N. (1999). Ulster-American Religion: Episodes in the History of a Cultural Connection. University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 7–8, 32. ISBN 9780268043032.
  5. ^ a b "Theology college provides union of hearts and minds". BelfastTelegraph.co.uk. 18 November 2009. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  6. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Beflast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan. p. 158.
  7. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan. p. 201.
  8. ^ Simpson, Mark (13 September 2021). "NI 100: Parliament's temporary home in a Belfast college". BBC News. Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  9. ^ "Queen's forges "divine" link-up with theological colleges".
  10. ^ "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". www.newulsterbiography.co.uk. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  11. ^ Minutes of the General Assembly. Presbyterian Church in Ireland. 1927. p. 41.
  12. ^ "Our history". Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Retrieved 16 March 2022.
  13. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan. p. 252.
  14. ^ Allen, Robert (1954). The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853-1953. Belfast: William Mullan. p. 271.
  15. ^ Presbyterian Church in Ireland Press Release, 2003 Presbyterian College Celebrates 150 Years Archived 19 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 8 March 2008.
  16. ^ "BBC NEWS - UK - Northern Ireland - Firefighters injured at college". bbc.co.uk. 14 November 2009.
  17. ^ "Fire destroyed Union College extension finally opens".
  18. ^ "How your 5p bag tax is helping to save six majestic buildings". Belfasttelegraph.
  19. ^ "Reformation focus for Union autumn seminars".
  20. ^ "The College's Coat of Arms". www.union.ac.uk. 5 September 2018. Retrieved 19 September 2021.
  21. ^ Union Theological College (13 December 2018). "The College's Coat of Arms". Twitter. Retrieved 10 February 2023.
  22. ^ a b c "Strategic Review of the Teaching of Theology at Queen's University Belfast, 2 June and 3 June 2016" (PDF). 10 June 2019.
  23. ^ "Suspended Queen's lecturer 'faces sack' after Presbyterian college snub". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 27 September 2021.
  24. ^ Meredith, Robbie (5 December 2018). "Union Theological College standards at risk, watchdog warns". BBC News.
  25. ^ McNeilly, Claire (6 December 2018). "Urgent review looms for Union Theological College following highly critical report". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  26. ^ "Educational Oversight: report of the monitoring visit of Union Theological College, May 2021" (PDF). QAA. 18 May 2021. Retrieved 15 March 2022.
  27. ^ "A sad day, says Church after Queen's severs links to college". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  28. ^ "'Sad day' as Queen's University ends relationship with Presbyterian college". www.newsletter.co.uk. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  29. ^ Preston, Allan (11 April 2019). "Queen's split with Union Theological College could cost £700k". Belfast Telegraph.
  30. ^ Bradfield, Phil (13 April 2019). "Queen's University Belfast Academic Council, 2 April 2019: Provision of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Programmes through the Institute of Theology".
  31. ^ "Review for Educational Oversight by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education" (PDF). QAA. October 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  32. ^ "Educational Oversight: report of the monitoring visit of Union Theological College, Belfast" (PDF). QAA. October 2017. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  33. ^ "Church faces £250k shortfall over loss of QUB fees for college". Belfast Telegraph. 31 May 2019.
  34. ^ Institute of Theology - Graduation Celebration Event, Jul 27, 2021, retrieved 29 August 2021
  35. ^ "Union Theological College Belfast College Handbook 2018-19 (page 45)" (PDF). Retrieved 21 September 2021.
  36. ^ "Educational Oversight: report of the monitoring visit of Union Theological College, May 2021" (PDF).
  37. ^ "Educational Oversight: report of the monitoring visit of Union Theological College, May 2021" (PDF).
  38. ^ "General Assembly 2019 Reports: Council for Training in Ministry (page 249)" (PDF).
  39. ^ "Presbyterian church dismisses Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick for 'adverse' comments on BBC about his employer". www.newsletter.co.uk. 21 March 2019. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  40. ^ "Presbyterian minister fired from college over 'gross misconduct'". BBC News. 21 March 2019. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  41. ^ "Belfast theological college professor fired over BBC radio comments". belfasttelegraph. 21 March 2019. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  42. ^ McGarry, Patsy (22 March 2019). "Presbyterian professor at Belfast College fired by church over liberal same sex views". The Irish Times. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  43. ^ "Liberty of theological expression is challenged from left and right". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 4 February 2023.
  44. ^ Leonard, Victoria (27 June 2018). "Queen's University of Belfast reviewing links to Presbyterian college as professor suspended". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  45. ^ "Presbyterian minister fired from college over 'gross misconduct'". BBC News. 21 March 2019. Retrieved 4 February 2023.
  46. ^ "Sacked professor considers leaving Presbyterian church". BBC News. 14 April 2019. Retrieved 4 February 2023.
  47. ^ Leonard, Victoria (27 June 2018). "Queen's University of Belfast reviewing links to Presbyterian college as professor suspended". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  48. ^ Bain, Mark (14 June 2018). "Livid ex-Presbyterian cleric calls on QUB to sever ties with Church". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  49. ^ Young, David (17 May 2019). "Presbyterian Church's treatment of academic 'like Inquisition'". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 13 February 2022.
  50. ^ "Presbyterian clerk denies ministers are being silenced". BBC News. 24 June 2018. Retrieved 30 August 2021.
  51. ^ "About the Institute". BibleMesh. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  52. ^ "Courses". UTC. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  53. ^ Union Theological College in Belfast to partner with Catholic university By Robbie Meredith, Education Correspondent, BBC Northern Ireland, February 26, 2020.
  54. ^ McCreary, Alf (6 June 2020). "Union College's new university link-up after break with QUB". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  55. ^ "St Mary's as a Catholic University St Mary's University". St Marys University. Retrieved 9 March 2022.
  56. ^ "Presbyterian college considers Catholic university partnership". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 15 March 2022.
  57. ^ "Union & PTFI". Union Theological College, Belfast. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  58. ^ "Annual Report and Enhancement Plan: September 2021" (PDF). Union Theological College. September 2021. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  59. ^ Campbell, Gordon (25 February 2022). "KLC PhD Supervision in Partnership with Union Theological College". Retrieved 27 February 2022.
  60. ^ Harris, Robin (23 January 2023). "Ph.D Partnership with Union Theological College". The Davenant Institute. Retrieved 5 February 2023.
  61. ^ "Annual Report and Enhancement Plan, page 16" (PDF). September 2021.
  62. ^ "Annual Report and Enhancement Plan, page 15" (PDF). September 2021.
  63. ^ "REINFORCEMENTS!". Union Theological College, Belfast. Retrieved 29 August 2021.
  64. ^ "Union College's new university link-up after break with QUB". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 29 August 2021.
  65. ^ "Former Presbyterian moderator who strove to bring people together". The Irish Times. Retrieved 26 January 2023.
  66. ^ Allen, R (1954). The Presbyterian College, Belfast, 1853-1953.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Home of the
Parliament of Northern Ireland

1921 – 1932
Succeeded by