Four facts about our postgrad programme that might surprise you
New technology, new opportunities, and a growing community of scholars who hope their research will impact the church.
#1: Our growing postgrad community hails from all around the globe.
Trinity postgraduate research (PGR) students are those students enrolled in either the Master of Theology (MTh) or Doctor in Philosophy (PhD) programmes at Trinity. Of the 37 postgraduate students currently enrolled at Trinity, 25 live outside the UK.
How did these students first connect with Trinity? Doctoral student Joshua Heavin, who lives in Dallas, Texas, where he is a pastoral intern at a Presbyterian church, first learned about Trinity from a professor at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas. Joshua’s professor called Trinity ‘a place that took the Kingdom of God seriously.’ Joshua recalls, ‘I had just finished reading Herman Ridderbos’s The Coming of the Kingdom and NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and my imagination was immediately hooked! After getting further information and contacting my supervisor [Trinity New Testament Tutor Dr] Jamie Davies, I quickly realised this would be a great fit for me.’
Doctoral student Andrew Stager is Christian Life Coordinator and Theology and Philosophy Instructor at Yongsan International School of Seoul, South Korea. He is also an associate pastor at Covenant Church in Seoul. ‘The advantage with Trinity is that I can do the research programme part-time, with an advisor who is interested in my research and able to guide me without being overly directive. The fact that Trinity is an institution that is committed to the service of the Church and the Kingdom enables me to do my work with those same commitments in view. Yet Trinity’s research degrees are validated by, and the degrees are granted by, the University of Aberdeen, which means that the work I’m doing will be academically rigorous and recognised as such.’
As our distance students conduct their research, they meet regularly about their writing (via Skype or over the phone) with two advisors—one Trinity faculty member, and a second who is usually a faculty member from another university with added expertise in the student’s area of interest. Trinity’s local and distance postgraduate students join together at college annually for a week in June to attend a postgraduate research conference, during which students share research papers, listen to a lecture from a senior scholar, and enjoy meals and a sightseeing day trip together—the most recent was to the British Library to view the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, with lunch at the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub (once frequented by GK Chesterton, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and other famous literary figures).
#2: Trinity was awarded a grant to purchase new video conferencing technology to enhance our PGR seminars.
Research students local to Bristol come to Trinity fortnightly for discussions on assigned texts as well as for papers by visiting scholars, faculty members, and the students themselves.
In January 2017, our postgraduate research programme began utilising a new video conferencing suite, allowing distance students to call into the seminar and see, hear, and participate nearly as fully as local students. During that first session, students called in from the US (Tennessee, Texas, Colorado, and Kentucky), Spain, South Korea, as well as from within the UK (Devon and Wiltshire) to discuss a text by theologian Nathan Kerr together.
‘The new video conferencing system is a massive improvement in my experience as a distance student,’ says doctoral student Andrew Stager, who regularly calls in from South Korea. ‘It’s the next best thing to being in the room with those present in Bristol. I’m very thankful the college has focused on this educational technology.’
American doctoral student Joshua Heavin agrees. He had felt some of the difficulties of studying from a distance and wished for more community engagement. ‘I was greatly relieved when I heard that new technology was being procured, and since it has been put in place I have never had an issue with it. It has greatly improved my experience of the programme, especially as it allows all of the distance students to meet and converse together. The postgraduate research seminars have been wonderful, offering distance students the chance to participate in interdisciplinary conversations and learn from our professors and one another.’
The new video conferencing capabilities have improved the seminar for those attending in person as well. ‘I like hearing perspectives from international students,’ says British doctoral student Anna Creedon. ‘It’s amazing how good the quality of the system is. There’s no delay—the picture and sound are so clear in talking to them—you feel as though they are right there.’
#3: Our ordinands have an option to pursue a research programme (MTh or PhD) as part of their ordination training.
Trinity ordinand Anna Creedon was teaching religious studies in a secondary school near Southampton when she suddenly had a sense that God might be calling her to ordained ministry. As she began her discernment process, she wanted to remain completely open to whatever God might be calling her to do, but, she explains, as she had already earned a master’s degree in education, ‘I knew I’d want to do something above the MA if I could’. Through the discernment process, Anna was identified as a potential theological educator. Her DDO, who had himself completed doctoral studies, took note of her interest and helped her follow up to consider what her options might be.
When she arrived at Trinity on interview a year ago, she discovered that if she enrolled in the MTh programme she could potentially transition into doctoral studies. Now at the end of her first year as an ordinand at Trinity, Anna has audited classes in worship, pastoral care, leadership, and Old Testament studies, as well as a few classes particularly relevant to the research she is currently conducting on scriptural engagement and its transformative potential within small groups.
Fellow ordinand Alison Walker has always enjoyed learning. As a chemistry undergraduate at Oxford, she discovered that rigorous study pointed her toward God. At Trinity, she found again that as she began to study theology, she soon wanted to explore it at a deeper level. ‘People are formed in different ways,’ she says. ‘I can’t separate my worship of God from my study of him.’ Though initially she was simply pursuing the master’s programme at Trinity, after she attended her first doctrine module, the discussion-based ‘Saving God’ class with Tutor in Theology and Ethics Rev Dr Jon Coutts, she began additional reading on her own. Over the summer, Jon pointed her toward The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, by Yale University Professor Dr Willie James Jennings. ‘I had never read theology word for word like that,’ she explains. ‘I devoured it. Then, in my second year, I hit the MA running. I knew I had only a year to come up with a research topic for the PhD.’
Alison will continue in her doctoral studies through her curacy, with the blessing of her sending diocese. ‘Hereford Diocese has been really supportive—that’s been key. Rather than creating a barrier, they have been very encouraging and flexible about study arrangements in curacy. They want people theologically educated to a good standard. They are already thinking about how I can provide teaching for the training opportunities they offer.’
#4: Trinity's PGR programme connects its students with top scholars and important academic opportunities.
The postgraduate research programme is led by Director of Postgraduate Research and Tutor in Christian Doctrine Dr Justin Stratis. Dr Stratis works to connect Trinity’s research students with key scholars in their fields to help supervise their research, whilst simultaneously working to organise a rota of outside scholars to address research seminars and a well-known scholar to provide the keynote lecture for the June research conference.
Dr Stratis connected student Alison Walker with her advisor, Dr Susannah Ticciati, who is Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Kings College London, over a meal together after a research seminar. ‘She is amazing,’ Alison says. ‘She is a well-rounded and astute theologian, and it has also been helpful to have her as a model, as a woman.’
Dr Stratis has also worked to connect our research students with opportunities at national and international theology conferences. In Britain, where he serves on the Executive Committee for the Society for the Study of Theology, he arranged for Trinity student Alison Walker to serve as the postgraduate respondent to plenary speaker Dr Willie James Jennings’s paper at the 2017 annual conference. Fellow Trinity research student Kim Quak-Winslow also participated in the conference as a member of a panel discussion led by Dr Stratis on class and theology—the only student participant alongside professors from the Universities of Aberdeen and Leicester.
At last year’s Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion meetings in San Antonio, Texas, Trinity research students Michelle Stinson and Mark Glanville both had papers accepted to present at the gatherings, with Mark presenting a total of three papers—an achievement for any research student.
Trinity’s own June research conference has welcomed senior scholars such as Prof Francis Watson (Durham), Prof John Webster (St. Andrews), Revd Prof Walter Moberly (Durham), and Prof Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary). At the conferences, students present their own research as well, with the top paper winning an annual research prize.
‘The papers and workshops, and the worship and socialising together, helped me begin to feel that I’m part of an academic community who are all seeking to love and honour God with our mind as well as with our heart, soul, and strength,’ says PhD student Fiona Gibson. ‘The visiting speakers have been world class, and very generous in sharing their wisdom and experience as well as their knowledge. That has felt like a real gift.’
Within the postgraduate community at Trinity, students and faculty model a concern that excellence in scholarship is pursued for the sake of the Church, with many expressing the desire that their research might impact both their own ministry practice and the practice of others.
‘The IME Phase 2 Officer in the diocese gave me some very useful advice,' says vicar and Trinity PhD student Fiona Gibson. 'She said that doing the research through a theological college rather than a university theology department would be a good idea, as a theological college would understand both the idea of a dual vocation, and the reality of the pressures of ministry life. Trinity was a good fit, coming from an evangelical tradition, and, what I’d read about the faculty and their work impressed me.’
PhD student Josh Heavin agrees, ‘Although there are many strengths at Trinity, such as the quality of the faculty and ecumenicity of the student body, I am perhaps most appreciative of the rare blend of academic rigor and ecclesial formation.’(Posted June 2017, from the Spring 2017 Trinity News)