175 years of New College

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“Religion impacts on every aspect of life,” says Professor Helen Bond, Head of the School of Divinity located in the picturesque New College building. “You don’t have to have a personal religion to be able to see religion at work in the world.”

The School of Divinity is celebrating 175 years since Dr Thomas Chalmers laid the foundation stone for the iconic New College building that sits in the centre of the Edinburgh skyline. A series of events have been taking place throughout 2021 to explore New College’s history, and celebrate the place of divinity and theology in the world today.

A unique site

For Helen, the study of religion and theology is more important than ever: “Appreciating other people’s world views is such an important part of understanding what makes them tick and why they behave as they do. It’s all about being human, and having a respect for other people.”

Helen is an expert on the rich and complex history of New College, which has found a fitting home within the Harry Potter towers of the New College building: “We’ve been studying and teaching divinity at the University of Edinburgh for more than 400 years – right back to the very founding of the University. It’s only for the last 175 that we’ve been on The Mound.

“Nowadays we’re the largest single site place to study theology and religious studies in the UK, with probably the largest theological library. The great thing about our courses here is that you can do any aspect of religion that interests you.”

The New College Library Hall in 1946

A complex history

But this breadth of study hasn’t always been available to members of New College. As part of the 175 celebrations, an event explored the long history of New College, examining how it has evolved from a training college for the Free Church of Scotland to the diverse and vibrant School it is today. “In the early days it was very much about training Church ministers who were all young men,” says Helen.

Joining the University in 1935 was also a key milestone in New College history: “From 1935 onwards we’ve been part of a secular university so our focus is very much on the academic study of religion and religious beliefs.”

New College from Princes Street in 1946

“There were very small numbers at first, but over the years things changed – women started to be ordained, and the first woman joined the staff in the 1970s.”

“The 70s was, I suppose, where we saw the most change,” Helen continues. “Until then we’d largely taught Christian theology, but in the 70s we introduced religious studies and this programme is much more wide ranging. Now you can do courses in Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and even Atheism, so all of that really changed the feel of New College.”

A multidisciplinary subject

So what does the future of this academic discipline look like? Well this is another question explored by the Divinity community as part of the celebrations. Helen is passionate about the place of divinity in the world today and beyond: “Theology is the archetypal multidisciplinary subject; we have people here who are historians, anthropologists, text-critics and philosophers. You can study almost any aspect of religion here and that makes it a really vibrant place.”

Helen’s research focuses on the first decades of Christianity, meaning she is often looking at Greek texts: “Whatever your interest, you can find people here who share those interests. I’m very much an ancient historian, whereas I have colleagues who are on the cutting edge of Christian-Muslim relations or theology, politics and science, working on things that have an impact on the real world.

“Several colleagues are interested in climate change, working out the relationship between climate change and religious beliefs. Another is leading a project on how religious groups have led the response to Covid in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And another looks at the repatriation of religious objects from museums.

“So there are huge numbers of things that you would hardly believe could share the same space, but what unites all of us is an interest in the part played by religion.

“This is the outward looking trajectory that will guide us through the next 175 years.”

A year of celebrations

Celebrating 175 years of New College during the pandemic has had its challenges, but ultimately it has helped the community keep in touch. Highlights of the events include the commission of a clock to fill the long-empty space on one of the external New College towers and being presented with a Coat of Arms by the Lord Lyon, a New College alumnus.

To round off a year of celebrations, this December New College will host a theology-themed book festival, Winter Tales. Boasting huge names like Val McDermid, Sally Magnusson, Robert Harris and Miles Jupp, as well as colleagues from the School, it’s no wonder Helen is excited: “We’ll capitalise on Edinburgh’s Winter Wonderland and the Christmas tree just outside our building. The idea is cuddle up under the duvet with sparkly fairly lights, a nice warm drink – and of course a good book.”

“I think this is the first theological book festival in Scotland,” Helen continues. “So there are possible plans to do it again! It’s being led by Dr Alison Jack who is the creative director of the festival and also Professor Jolyon Mitchell who’s co-chairing it with her. They are an incredible team!”

The book festival will run over the first weekend of December, with events for all ages, to encourage anyone and everyone to join and take part.

The past year of celebrations has been ambitious, attracting people from across the globe to come and examine theological questions, and Helen is keen to continue this work: “My aspiration for New College is that we’re seen as the go-to place whatever your interest or questions about religion might be.”

Explore more of the 175 celebration events, on the School of Divinity website.

Book tickets and find out more about the book festival.

Photography: Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie; Paul Dodds; Chris Close