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The Irish School of Ecumenics (1970-2007): ‘Like wheat that springs up green’

30 November, 1999

In the emerging post-secular society the Irish School of Ecumenics has a bright future. This is founder Michael Hurley SJ’s assessment of the role of an institution he founded almost forty years ago and which is still very much at the heart of academic and cultural life in Ireland and worldwide. The story of the school is told by those who were at the heart of its development.

236 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book go to www.columba.ie


Editor’s Preface 
Foreword David F. Ford 

  1. The Beginnings (1960-1970) Michael Hurley 
  2. The First Decade (1970-1980) Michael Hurley 
  3. On the Way (1980-1987) Robin Boyd 
  4. Realising our Potential (1987-1990) John D’Arcy May 
  5. Negotiating Diverse Cultures (1990-1994) Alan Falconer 
  6. Challenge and Change (1994-1999) Geraldine Smyth 
  7. Five Fascinating Years (1999-2004) Kenneth Kearon 
  8. Transition Year (2005) John May 
  9. Looking to the Future (2006 – ) Linda Hogan 

Index of Personal Names 231




Michael Hurley grew up in the seaside village of Ardmore, Co Waterford, was educated by the Cistercian monks in Mount Melleray, and then in 1940 joined the Jesuits. He graduated in classics from University College, Dublin in 1945 and later studied theology in Louvain and in Rome where he obtained a doctorate in 1960 from the Gregorian University. From 1958 until 1970 he taught theology at the Jesuit Theological Faculty in Dublin and established there the Milltown Park Public Lectures. He founded the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1970 and remained as Director until 1980. In 1983 he founded the residential Columbanus Community of Reconciliation in Belfast and remained a member until 1993. His publications include Church and Eucharist (ed 1966), Theology of Ecumenism (1969), Irish Anglicanism (ed 1970), Reconciliation in Religion and Society (ed 1994), Church Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring (1998) and an autobiographical memoir Healing and Hope (2003). He received an honorary doctorate (LLD) from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1993 and from Trinity College Dublin in 1995.


As the title indicates, this book proposes to tell the story of the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), founded in Dublin just under forty years ago. It begins with an introductory chapter on how the School began and then gives all its Directors the opportunity and space to tell their individual stories in print for the first time. One by one, chapter by chapter they share their memories. The book therefore is more a memoir than a history; and so it is sparing with footnotes.

Like wheat that springs up green
Despite the difficulties and set backs we each have to record, this book is for all of us a success story; and that is the point of our sub-title: ‘Like wheat that springs up green’. This many readers will recognise as the refrain from the hymn ‘Now the Green Blade rises’. It is sung at Easter time here in the West by congregations both Catholic and Protestant and it seems appropriate in our book because it tells the story of a rising. At the beginning we had nothing but goodwill and hope; with these we have risen, if not to glory, at least to be a ‘living and life-giving’ academic body; we are at least a partial success.

Our subtitle recalls ISE’s emblem or logo. This was devised by Mr Gerard Slevin, a friend who was Chief Herald at Dublin Castle at the time of our inauguration. The flourishing and perishing of our motto (‘Floreat ut Pereat’; ‘May it Flourish in order to Perish’, ‘Tagadh Blath chun go dTagadh Feo’) (1) reminded him of the dying and rising involved not only in the glorification of Jesus but also in natural growth and in the sacrament of the eucharist. He remembered the Johannine verse which says: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (Jn 12:24). And the wheat reminded him of the bread which in the eucharist becomes for us the sacramental body of Christ; he saw each in its own mysterious way illustrating the miracle of change, of dying to rise, and gave us an ear of wheat as our logo.

Our subtitle also recalls the very unusual but very consoling gift which at the beginning some Presbyterian friends gave to the School: a crucifix found by a World War I Irish Presbyterian chaplain in the mud and rubble of an unidentified French village and brought back by him and given a place of honour in his manse for the rest of his life. The fourth gospel sees the crucifixion of Jesus as an elevation into glory as well as an elevation on a cross. The Presbyterian crucifix encouraged us to believe that the School must in due course have an Easter experience.

Rising to die
In the 60s this idea of dying to rise had become part of the churches’ ecumenical thought and language. At its New Delhi Assembly in 1961 the World Council of Churches stated that:

The achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them. We believe that nothing less costly can finally suffice.

Vatican II in its Decree on Ecumenism also stressed that the church ‘which bears in her own body the humility and dying of Jesus’ needs to be ‘more purified and renewed’.

Paradoxically, however, the School’s motto is not about dying to rise but about rising to die. Ecumenical institutions, I wrote at the beginning, ‘live to die as soon as ever possible, as soon as the task is completed of reconciling the churches in the unity which is God’s will for his people’. And in the 80s some Anglicans did not hesitate to think in a similar vein about their own church/communion. They wrote of its ‘provisional character’, of its eventual ‘disappearance’, even quoting the ISE motto as an appropriate expression. (cf Michael Hurley, Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? Veritas, Dublin 1998, pp183-6).

Education in Ecumenism
But in 1970 the ISE motto was more a criticism of the existing ecumenical movement. This had begun in 1910 and by the 60s and 70s had numerous achievements to its credit but only too obviously had still failed in its efforts to encourage and energise the churches to die and rise, to become one. At the press conference to announce the establishment of ISE, I took the liberty of stating that ‘the scandal of disunity has become the scandal of ecumenism’ and I expressed the hope that the encouragement of ecumenics as a discipline and the creation of departments or institutes of ecumenics would, by providing opportunities for relevant research and study, ‘help to remedy, at its real source, the present worldwide ecumenical malaise’.

This was to identify a lack of emphasis on facilities for education in ecumenism at all levels as a significant factor in the failure to date of the ecumenical movement. In the following decades the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches would both publish documents which recognised the need. They provided suggestions and directives and in particular insisted on ‘the strategic importance of giving priority to the ecumenical formation of those who have special responsibility for ministry and leadership in the churches’.

But this new emphasis on education and formation, on research and study has not been sufficient to reanimate and reactivate the churches into a more dynamic movement for unity. The movement has in fact slowed down. Millennium hopes were not realised; the old, cynical remark that ‘the churches will say and do everything about unity except unite’ sadly remains only too true. As institutions, as corporate bodies, the churches do not wish to die any more than individual persons do: like ourselves they fear death and resist it. But ecumenical bodies themselves, the School of Ecumenics included, can also become institutionalised. And the longer they live the greater perhaps the danger that they lose their memories, that they forget who they are and as a result become less inclined to, less able to change and reform, to adopt new strategies and tactics. For the School our motto encourages us to be on our guard against this process of institutionalisation; it is an encouragement to believe that eventually to flourish, to be a complete and not only a partial success will mean making ourselves redundant, freeing ourselves for the greater things which remain to be revealed. It is also an encouragement to believe that being already a partial success, having already helped to bring unity and peace somewhat nearer, entails a readiness to die, to perish, to sacrifice the particular achievements of the present but only to build on them in order to bring unity and peace still nearer in the now emerging post-secular society.

The emerging post-secular society
The process of secularisation which has overtaken our world in recent times did bring us many benefits, not least perhaps a taming of the churches. But I now look forward to the post-secular culture which a number of thinkers see emerging, though more slowly here in Europe than elsewhere. This ‘post-secularism’ has a positive attitude to religious belief and believers, ‘rescuing the importance of religion from both fundamentalist assertion and liberal erasure’ (2). Nostalgically perhaps, I look back to the School’s early days when in the private, residential setting of Bea House a prayer service took place before lunch on class days, and when in the Milltown Park chapel a eucharist was occasionally celebrated, notably the Methodist Covenant Service at the end of the academic year. The School, I liked to think, was a family and the family was a domestic church and families had a certain right to privacy. Such a simple spirituality, or at least these particular expressions of it, had of course no real future then: they could not hope to survive the various winds of change, favourable and unfavourable, which were already blowing and which have since changed the world and the church; in the emerging post-secular society, however, the spiritual and ecumenical imaginations will surely suggest the religious forms and expressions which are appropriate in the new, more open climate.

And is a new, alternative ecumenical vision not already emerging? Or at least an alternative expression of the older? Years ago, in 1965, I was invited to be a member of a BBC television panel to discuss a book entitled: Rome: Opponent or Partner? It was a memorable experience (3) and in the years since, specially as inter-religious dialogue has begun to join inter-church dialogue in the ecumenical movement, the terms ‘opponent’ and ‘partner’ have become ever more meaningful for me. While retaining some form of organic union as ideal and aspiration, an ecumenical vision, it now seems to me, must mean being able here and now to see other churches and other religions no longer as opponents but as partners at all levels in the cause of promoting unity and peace everywhere; and these partnerships can surely differ in shape and scope depending on the parties involved and their circumstances. Such a vision depends, of course, on a concern about disunity and conflict, both political and religious, in the church of all the followers of Christ, in the church of all God’s people and in the world at large. The Irish School of Ecumenics was born of such a concern. With its positive attitude to religion, the emerging post-secular society can only appreciate and value such a concern and give a fresh fillip to the School’s whole life and work; which in turn can only help to facilitate and accelerate the emergence of a post-secular culture where it has so far been slow to develop.

It remains to say thanks: first and foremost to Linda Hogan, Head of School and those who preceded her as Heads in fact if not in name and status, for agreeing to collaborate on this project and giving it priority despite other commitments; to Sláine Ó Hógáin, ISE Librarian, and Anne O’Carroll, Library Assistant at Milltown Park for their kind helpfulness, in the wonderful tradition of librarians everywhere; to Aideen Woods, ISE Administrator for being so ready in answering queries and assembling and identifying photos; to Eileen Ellis, Jesuit Community Administrator at Milltown Park for also being so ready in answering requests for help, specially with regard to computer problems; to our Rector, Caoimhin Ó Ruairc, and the whole Milltown Park Jesuit community – this year I celebrate my Golden Jubilee as a member – and to my Jesuit friends everywhere for their encouragement and patience, in particular to Bill Callanan, David Gaffney, Ray Moloney and Joe Palmisano, doctoral student at ISE, for help in proof reading; to Ann Lane and the Reception staff at Milltown Park for being so supportive, so consistently; and to Professor David F. Ford for his substantial, challenging Foreword. He follows in the footsteps of the Hanson brothers, the twins Anthony and Richard, the Church of Ireland members, TCD graduates and English academics who were so outstandingly helpful to ISE in its early years. David Ford also grew up in the Church of Ireland and graduated from TCD and is now an English academic: Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. The Foreword which he has generously contributed to this book is a welcome encouragement to ISE as it approaches its forties, a decade which can be difficult for institutions as well as individuals. And finally my sincere thanks and the thanks of all of us to Sean O’Boyle and his excellent staff at Columba Press for undertaking to publish this volume and doing so with their now well-established expertise.




  1. For this long overdue Irish version of our ISE motto I am grateful to some of my Jesuit friends, specially to Fr Leon Ó Giolláin, one of the chaplains at University, College, Dublin (UCD) and to Professor Seosamh Watson also of UCD.
  2. Post-secular Philosophy, ed Phillip Blond, Routledge, London and New York 1998, p i; cf Fabio Petito & Pavlos Hatzopoulos, eds, Religion in International Affairs: The Return ftom Exile, Palgrave Macmillan New York, 2003; Ulf Jonsson SJ, ‘Religion in Sweden’, Studies 96 (September 2007) pp. 193-202.
  3. As a result the redoubtable, then anti-ecumenical, Presbyterian minister, Donald Gillies, a fellow panellist, and myself became friends eventually; cf my Healing and Hope (Columba Press, Dublin 2003), pp 62-3.





David F. Ford is a native of Dublin who was educated at The High School and thereafter read Classics at Trinity College. He then studied Theology at St John’s College, Cambridge, first at undergraduate level and then as a doctoral student, in the course of which he conducted intensive periods of research in Yale and Tubingen. In 1976 he joined the staff of the University of Birmingham, receiving his PhD from Cambridge in the following year. Since 1991 he has been Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. As such he is inter alia founding Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). In 2005 he co-edited the volume Fields of Faith –Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-First Century, and he has also co-edited with Marc Caball a study of the Irish poet Micheal Ó Siadhail, entitled Musics of Belonging (2006). The latest of his many publications include Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (2007) and Shaping Theology: Engagements in a Religious and Secular World (2007).


This book is not just a fascinating account of the Irish School of Ecumenics, one of the most imaginative and important academic and institutional developments in Ireland in the past half century. It has the added value that it is written by those who carried the responsibility for conceiving and leading the School since before its foundation in 1970. It is not, therefore, a critical history written by a scholar who has consulted archives, interviewed the main players and set it carefully in historical context – that still remains to be done and would be a worthwhile task for a doctoral dissertation. For those of us in the business of trying to shape institutions which attempt both to be academically excellent and also engage effectively in the public sphere, the book Michael Hurley and his fellow Directors have produced is even more valuable. It gives us the chance to see from the inside how others have approached the daunting task of bringing a new institution to birth and of leading it through various stages of development. The more I have myself got involved in such matters, the more I admire and need to learn from those who exercise one of the most important but generally neglected gifts in our world: institutional creativity in the service of the long term flourishing of societies. That is what increasingly impressed me as I read through these chapters.

At the heart of it, as so often, is the vision of one person, Michael Hurley. But, as Linda Hogan, his current successor, writes: ‘It is becoming increasingly manifest that the original vision of the founder has the capacity to become exponentially greater and will enable ISE to respond with vigour to the increasingly complex issues of today.’ That is the long term test of a vision, and Michael Hurley’s passes it with flying colours. He was ahead of his time in how he brought ecumenism among churches together with inter-faith dialogue and dedication to religious, political and cultural reconciliation across some of the deepest differences in our world.

It was only at the beginning of the twenty-first century that most of the world (or rather, those people whose outlook had been formed by some of the dominant ideologies and world-views of the twentieth century – capitalist, ‘secularist scientistic’, communist and fascist) woke up to the fact that the four to five billion or so of the world’s population who are directly involved with the major religions are vital to shaping the future. The twentieth century was mostly, at least as viewed by the Western-educated elites and the media they influenced, quite a secularised time. Michael Hurley’s daring alliance of faith with intellect and institutional creativity challenged the religious and the non-religious to take seriously the role of religion in the contemporary world. It is striking that some of the key players in the story, especially within Trinity College, are not themselves religious but have yet worked hard to establish ISE on a sound footing.

I see such alliances as vital to a peaceful future in all the major spheres of life. We can no longer claim to live in a secular world, but nor is it simply religious; rather, it is complexly religious and secular at the same time, with no necessary conflict between the two on many matters, many sophisticated interplays of both, and no single global direction of ‘progress’ – whether towards being ‘more secular’ or ‘more religious’. Big issues often require understanding, negotiation and collaboration across both religious and secular divides. ISE has pioneered this in relation to both Irish and international issues and, as Linda Hogan’s look ahead suggests, it is now well placed to serve the needs not just of Ireland but also of other parts of the world in the coming century. Already it has generated a great deal of intellectual and practical energy in the service of reconciliation, and its alumni are working out its ideals around the world.

I have been encouraged to write a foreword that engages with some of the key topics of the book, and I will do so with two questions in mind. First, what are the lessons from its past and from elsewhere for ISE as it enters its next phase in line with the direction in which Linda Hogan is leading it? Second, what are the lessons that the rest of us who are involved in analogous enterprises might learn? I will discuss first the foundational vision, then the shaping of an appropriate institution, and will finally issue my own challenges based on my Christian and inter-faith experience.

The Vision of Ecumenics
The most obviously distinctive thing about ISE is its concept of ‘ecumenics’ that combines the inter-church, the inter-faith and the tasks of reconciliation and peacemaking in the whole of society. Even within ISE there is, as the debate about the naming of Linda Hogan’s post made clear, an ongoing debate about the adequacy of the term ‘ecumenics’. Can it make the transition from intra-Christian relations to the wider meaning? Since the term in origin refers to the whole inhabited world, there is no philological reason to limit it to Christians, and I would be with those who want to stick by it and explain its scope whenever possible. Ecumenics in the ISE sense goes well with ecology as two matching core concerns for our century.

There are lessons to be learned from this match. When the scientific world began to realise that its specialties could not cope adequately with the interconnectedness of the elements of the natural world and the further interconnectedness of the natural and human worlds, the response was a new range of interrelated disciplines that considered the environment in systemic terms. Developing these was, and continues to be, a massive intellectual challenge. A fundamental question for ecumenics is whether the measure of the intellectual challenge has been taken. There are of course many integrative discourses, especially in the social sciences. But what about theology? For Christians the deep connections need continually to be thought and rethought in terms of God and the purposes of God, in terms of the ways in which God is the ultimate interconnector. Now that religion is returning to the public sphere it cannot have a private theology that is not exposed to the rigours of intellectual standards across other disciplines. This does not mean that other fields dictate what may be concluded in theology but it does call theologians to be at least as intelligent, knowledgeable and constructively and critically interactive as others.

One of my main concerns for theology is whether it is up to this task. It needs to be thoroughly engaged with the best past and present thinking. This has implications for its institutional location: the integration of ISE into Trinity College Dublin, for all its problems, is obviously the right move, and will be discussed further below. It also has implications for the collaborations and networks in which ISE participates: the temptation is likely to be to relate mostly to those who are concerned with wider educational dissemination and with practical activities rather than to those who can offer greater intellectual intensity.

Yet it is not just an intellectual challenge. The integration of the intellectual with the imaginative and the practical has been an ongoing concern of ISE and part of its attraction to so many students over the years. This is also, I suspect, part of its appeal to TCD, since universities are rightly increasingly concerned about their contribution to society. I see this wider challenge as being to find a contemporary wisdom. Within Christian theology, wisdom has generally been seen as present not only within but also beyond the church, and other religions have analogous positions. Within the contemporary university, wisdom is often neglected in favour of knowledge, skills and know-how, but the pressure to take seriously the responsibilities accompanying the power of knowledge and its applications has helped to bring it back onto the agenda under various guises – often concerned with values, ethics, leadership and professional formation. The ISE vision could be seen as an appeal for ‘joined-up wisdom’ relating to churches, religions and society. As such it might benefit from being more self-conscious about itself as a wisdom-seeking institution.

Elements of Institutional Creativity
As Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, which is still in its infancy and has also had the advantage of being part of the University of Cambridge since its inception in 2002, I read with a feeling of some awe the story of the founding of a completely independent institution and the complexities of integrating it into a university. So much of the thought and work needed to build an institution is hidden; there is something heroic in the long term dedication of time and energy required to overcome the obstacles to the success of any new institution, especially one that challenges accepted ways of perceiving and acting. Three elements of this story stood out for me in particular: funding; the nature of the contemporary university; and the importance of theology and religious studies within universities.

Funding has obviously been the nightmare of each director. The dilemma is common: on the one hand, a wonderful vision, a superb team of teachers, administrators and other supporters, successful outreach activities with demands for many more, eager students from many countries; but, on the other hand, constant funding problems, sometimes to the point of threatened bankruptcy. There is a massive frustration in knowing one can do something pioneering and worthwhile on many levels and fronts but then having to devote a totally disproportionate amount of time and energy (including emotional energy handling anxiety in oneself and others, creditors, potential benefactors, and endless oral and written presentations to funding bodies) on raising money or saving money by painful cuts.

The good news in this story is that somehow ISE has survived. I savoured the moving expressions of gratitude to the people and groups who have made the donations, handled the finances and fundraising, been advocates in many quarters and remained loyal through continuing difficulties. There is nothing quite like a long term institutional project for sorting out who really does share a vision and is willing to put their money and other gifts where their mouth is. I salute those mentioned with honour in these pages.

But the other side is that the financial problems continue. One way of looking at this is: of course they do, and it is appropriate that ISE share in the precariousness that most of the rest of the world experiences. Yet there are degrees of precariousness, and for an institution to flourish it needs some stability and protection from constant financial uncertainty. The obvious way to ensure such stability is for ISE to have the right long term settlement within Trinity College Dublin (on which more below) and also (whether through TCD or, for many of the outreach activities of ISE, directly from governments, churches, foundations and individuals) short term and medium term support from other sources. There is no single answer to the funding problem. But there is a best solution: endowment. It is no accident that the world’s top universities are well-endowed and not dependent primarily on short-term funding decisions by politicians and others. The more endowment there is, with secure income for essential expenditure, the better ISE will be able to fulfil its mission – and the better it will be able to gather funding from other sources. Clearly ISE has recognised this, and now that it is integrated within TCD there may be a new possibility to gather endowment. This will partly (perhaps even largely) depend on the level of support for ISE from within TCD. It is to this second element, that of the university, that I now turn.

On the current global situation of universities – by which I mean the sort of world class research university that TCD is – and the ways they relate to the religions (a topic on which I have found myself increasingly exercised in recent years, in print [1] as well as in practice), my broad position is as follows. Universities like TCD are faced with huge challenges, of which the main six are:

  • Can it marry research with teaching across a wide range of disciplines?
  • Can it offer an all-round education that forms students in ways that go beyond information, knowledge and know-how?
  • Can it cultivate forms of collegiality that enable conversations and collaborations across specialties, generations and practical concerns?
  • Can it contribute broadly to the common good of society, both national and international?
  • Can it be well-endowed and well-governed, accountable to many stakeholders but also with appropriate independence?
  • Can it be appropriately interdisciplinary in its academic life, its contributions to society, and its discussions about its own purposes and policies?

In facing such challenges, the points made above about the simultaneously secular and religious character of our world and the need for the sort of ‘joined-up wisdom’ that ISE represents are relevant. If universities are to respond adequately to the twenty-first century world they need to become (or at least some of the best need to become – there is always going to be a plurality of types of university) multi-faith and secular universities in which the search for wisdom goes on across disciplines, professions, spheres of society, ethical and religious traditions and generations. The demands on universities are rightly growing: there are almost no other institutions in our world where there is any possibility of engaging with the sorts of issues and tasks that universities (at their best) can tackle. But there are also massive pressures that militate against facing those six challenges in a coherent way. ISE (at its best) is concerned with each of the six, and, while it is only one way of approaching them, it has great potential if TCD recognises the gift it has been given.

I have not tried to find out independently how the internal politics of TCD has been moving in this matter, but it does seem as if people at all levels of the university have responded positively to the ISE vision. Some chapters revealed problems in the area of religions and theology. This is entirely predictable, since ISE represents something that is bound to appear problematic to many in a field dominated by specialties and academic guilds. Nor are the problems unreal or insignificant; but one cannot help feeling that the chance to work them through is likely to be a great benefit in the long term. The sort of academic environment that might result from a genuine marriage of ISE with a strong School of Religions and Theology could be the envy of other places. Most major universities have not begun to realise the significance of the religions and associated issues and the need for high quality interdisciplinary academic engagement with them. TCD is being offered the chance to be a world leader in this. Also part of the offer is the chance to have national and international outreach of a sort which other universities will also want to emulate and with which they will want to collaborate. If ISE does the right quality work and TCD gives the right level of support, then the future is bright. And, as already suggested, the whole development would be greatly assisted and rendered irreversible if there were major endowment. Surely a wealthier Ireland can find some surplus to realise such a powerful vision?

My third point about the field of theology and religious studies follows on from this. This field is the scene of considerable controversy and conflict within and beyond schools and universities around the world. Just focusing on universities, it is clear that most do not take the study of religions very seriously. (I remember a conversation with the Vice-Chancellor of one of the newer British universities that had a secular ethos and no department of religion, in which I asked him where on his campus what are arguably the two most influential books in the world, the Bible and the Qur’an, could be studied. His reply was that he thought the Bible figured in English and Medieval Studies.) Where they do take the field seriously, the main form is ‘religious studies’, in the sense of the study of various aspects of the religions through a range of academic disciplines.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the main problem is that the neutral, objectivist ethos often rules out pursuing questions of truth and goodness to the point of arriving at any conclusions or practical implications. It is as if in the area of economics and business a university were to rule out academics being at all involved with governments or businesses as they try to work out how to run the economy and make money (or, even more extreme, were to insist that an economist who uses money and takes part in economic activity is no longer ‘objective’!). University involvement with the religions seems to me to be similarly handicapped and arbitrarily restricted if it excludes contributions from academics of various faith commitments and none, and if it does not encompass critical and constructive relations with a wide range of religious and non-religious bodies.

Among the world’s universities who do attempt to do this, there are three main approaches. One (mainly seen in the United States and in Islamic countries, but increasingly elsewhere too) is for a university itself to be confessionally tied to a religion. Another is for a confessional or ecumenical ‘divinity school’ to be part of a largely secular university (as, for example, in Harvard and Yale). The third is what TCD has: theology and religious studies fully integrated into a university that is secular in the sense of not being confessionally committed, but not secular in the other sense of excluding religion in various forms. This enables ongoing negotiation about the internal and external involvements of a department and does not rule out following through on questions of truth and practice. It is a way of institutionalising the subject that has evolved piecemeal in British and Irish universities during the past century and a half. I see it as an extremely valuable development and one that deserves to come into its own in our religious and secular world. Yet it is still very much a minority approach and is also in need of further development in institutionally creative ways. The integration of ISE with TCD seems to me to be an opportunity for such a creative development, and one that could be a model for many other universities.

Lessons and Challenges
What might be some of the lessons of this book? For ISE I think there must be great encouragement to continue to develop and realise the founding vision. The basic lesson, which one hopes might be learned by some who are willing to take up the institutional, academic, practical and spiritual burdens so ably carried by the authors and others mentioned in this book, is that an enterprise like this is not only massively demanding but also hugely worthwhile. If I were choosing just one further lesson it would be: seek endowment even more energetically.

The same lessons might be learnt by others who are attempting analogous things elsewhere. My own efforts with the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme have been continually illuminated and informed as I read this story of ISE. There has been comfort in recognising familiar hopes, joys, trials, conflicts and multiple overwhelmings. The conviction that pioneering work combining many disciplines, churches, religions and problematic situations is not only possible but imperative for the future of our world has been reinforced.

I would also in conclusion issue three challenges to ISE as it faces the rest of this century in its new institutional location.

The first is to take the university seriously as one of the main institutions through which society can transcend itself. This should complement the core ISE concerns with churches, other religious communities and societies as a whole. The university is in fact a space where all those others come together, and it is also part of a global network that is vital to the world’s future. Taking the university seriously means being willing to take responsibility within it, to think on its behalf, to challenge it when necessary, and to help it become more of a wisdom-seeking institution. But above all it means building up its collegiality, especially through intensive disciplined conversations and collaborations across disciplines and across generations. If ISE were to take all that on as a core responsibility, there would be not only a good outlook for it and for TCD but also for its other commitments.

The second is not to neglect or short-change the ISE intra-Christian ecumenical commitment – a further reason for keeping the term ‘ecumenics’. The temptation in a university context, and also in relation to a world where the main urgencies appear to be reconciliation and peace-making in the inter-faith and various societal contexts, is to see the divisions among Christians as less important. I think it is not so much a matter of importance ratings as of the interrelation of them all, as in the core vision of ISE. One key thing I have learnt from inter-faith engagement is that, beyond the initial phase with its difficulties, novelties and excitements, it only goes really well if going deeper into the faith of others is accompanied by simultaneously going deeper into one’s own faith and responding more passionately to the cries of the world. Ecumenism among Christians should be about us who are Christian being filled with the Spirit and being attracted deeper into God and God’s purposes.

The third is to read and re-read scriptures, both the Christian Bible and others. The most helpful practice that I have discovered in both intra-Christian and inter-faith relations is that called Scriptural Reasoning (2). This is simply Jews, Christians and Muslims gathering to study and discuss their scriptures together (3). It may be that the succession of directors writing in this book took the scriptures for granted as part of what ISE is about and so neglected to pay them much attention; but I did find myself thinking that these texts, so vital to the core identities of the various communities, deserve more explicit attention. This may be all the more important in a university context where many powerful discourses bid for attention and dominance. There is something about studying intensively the long, complex traditions of interpreting and reinterpreting scriptures and tracing their ramifications into worship, theology, philosophy, ethics, literature, art, architecture, scholarship and ordinary living that, negatively, helps to resist takeovers by less God-centred and less multilayered discourses, and, positively, helps to inspire and nourish a faith that can be both intelligent and interrogative, innovative and wise.



  1. Most recently in Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2007) and Shaping Theology: Engagements in a Religious and Secular World (Blackwell: Oxford 2007).
  2. See Christian Wisdom op. cit. Chapter 8.
  3. This obviously invites extension to other traditions, and this has been attempted with Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.


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