An astonishing story

Andrew McGowan is an evangelical Church of Scotland minister from Glasgow with a passion for theological education. In 1992, he read in a newspaper that the government was planning to establish a new university for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (UHI). Most of those reading the paper over breakfast that day probably quickly skimmed the article and then turned the page, but in Andrew’s mind an idea began to grow. What caught his attention was the unique nature of the proposed university.

The sowing of a seed

‘The intention was not to build a new university on a greenfield site, but to unite a series of existing institutions in a federal arrangement. This would mean that colleges in Orkney, Shetland, Skye, the Western Isles and on the mainland, would together form this new university.’ In Andrew’s mind, if there was to be a new university made up of various colleges, it would need to have a theological college. ‘At the time there was a clear choice for theological study, between university faculties – most of which were distinctly unsympathetic to an evangelical position – and Bible colleges. But very often, in these Bible colleges, the libraries were poorer, the academic standards were not so high and there were problems with validation and accreditation.’

Andrew saw the new federal university as an opportunity to get the best of both worlds. ‘It seemed to me that this would be an ideal situation. Each of these partner institutions was to have its own board and manage its own business. This meant that you could be a reformed, evangelical theological college and at the same time be a constituent part of a mainstream Scottish university. ‘I am convinced that theology belongs in the university. It seems to me that if we allow theology to be pressed out of the universities then we are conceding that theology is not a real subject alongside other university subjects, but is a matter for private interests that should be pursued privately. I believe that the truth of God’s Word is real truth, and that real truth and knowledge must have their place at the university. What I teach is as much truth as mathematics or physics or any of the other subjects.’

But there was a problem. There was no theological college! If this new university was to have a theological college, someone would have to found one. Andrew then met with Rev Alex Murray (the nephew of Scottish theologian, Professor John Murray) who was a representative member of the Highland Council. Over the next six months, they worked together, talking to church representatives, academics, civil servants and politicians. ‘We put the proposal to a group of ministers and businessmen from several denominations. We agreed that we would accept their judgment as being from God. If they said “It’s a non-starter”, we would take that to be God’s will and we would walk away.’

The challenge is set

Thankfully, the men approved of the plan, and the seed was firmly planted. The work continued for a further year, but little real progress was made. Then early in 1994, things came to a head. Dr Robert Chalmers, the chairman of the academic planning committee for the new university, wanted to know why there had been so little progress. I said, ‘We have no money, no building, no staff and no students.’ In the sovereignty of God, Dr Chalmers was able to help with one of those needs, and he offered rooms in his own college. Finally, it seemed as though things were getting off the ground.

But there was still no money, no staff, and no students. The group of ministers who had given their backing a year earlier thought it might just be possible to bring these things together within eighteen months. So they resolved to establish a new theological college to start in August 1995. Andrew reported this back to Dr Chalmers in March 1994, accepting his offer of rooms at Moray College. He wasn’t quite as agreeable as they had expected. ‘No’, he said, ‘let’s start this August.’ Andrew protested that this was quite impossible, and received the reply, ‘Have you no faith?’ Feeling somewhat rebuked, the steering group agreed to this new plan, and Andrew was officially appointed as Director of Highland Theological College (HTC) with Rev Hector Morrison as Deputy Director.

Setting up a college in six months – even with all the preparatory work that had already been done – was an enormous task. ‘Dr Eryl Davies [then principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Wales] invited us down. We were only due to be in Bryntirion for one day, but there was a train strike so we were there for three days. By the end of it, it was agreed that we would submit for an accreditation exercise by the University of Glamorgan, to franchise the ETCW BA degree, and we were also introduced to the University of Wales, Lampeter with respect to PhD studies – and all of this before we taught a single course or taught a single student! We are deeply indebted to Dr Eryl Davies and to what is now WEST for the tremendous support and encouragement that they gave us in the first four years of our existence. We prayed that God would give us ten students with which to start the college on the 19th September. On the first of September we still had no students, but by the starting date we had nine full-time and two part-time students. We saw that as a real answer to prayer.’

Growth and development

That was 1994. Since then, things have certainly moved apace. ‘Today we have over 150 students, and sixteen full-time staff members, of whom five are academics. We also have five part-time academic staff, including Paul Helm and Gerald Bray.’ HTC is not just a seminary, and in addition to preparing men for the ministry and the mission-field, also has students studying to teach religious education in schools, and several post-graduates have gone on to lecture at other theological colleges and seminaries. So it’s not just the number of people that has grown since 1994, the number of courses that HTC is able to offer has also multiplied. Of those students around forty are studying an access course, eighty are studying for a BA, twenty-five for a DMin, and twenty for PhDs. There’s also a small number studying a new MTh degree in Reformed Theology. This student body could never be physically accommodated in the college’s buildings. ‘The remarkable thing is that people can study at HTC without coming to Dingwall. Our BA degree can be completed by distance learning. People who have jobs and families, and cannot simply up and go off to study full-time somewhere can, in their own time, complete all the modules.’

HTC’s approach to distance learning embraces both the traditional paper-based learning and the very modern. One of the advantages of being linked to the new UHI Millennium Institute is that the college is able to take advantage of UHI’s investment in technology. UHI has almost 100 ‘learning centres’ spread throughout the Highlands and Islands, and at these centres, students can see and hear the classes at HTC via video-conferencing. Alternatively, students can use a virtual learning environment without even leaving their homes. This allows them to read and engage with lectures and other materials, interact with staff and students through message boards, as well as sending and receiving assignments and reading material.

The value of the college has been recognised by the Church of Scotland – HTC was the first new college recognised by the Kirk for more than seventy-five years – and by the Government’s Quality Assurance Agency, which awarded the college the highest category in each of the three areas of assessment. Andrew claims that this recognition has come without any need to compromise the college’s theological stance. ‘At no point has anyone tried to tell us what we may or may not teach – and if they did, we would protest, because the purpose of an accreditation is academic standards and quality assurance, not to tell us the perspective from which we teach.’

You might think that after so much progress in so little time, there wasn’t much room for further development. That’s not how Andrew sees it, however. ‘It’s quite exciting. The main development is that the UHI Millennium Institute is on the cusp of full university status.’ This will mean that UHI will be able to validate its own degrees and remove the need for external validation.

‘In terms of HTC’s own development, we have worked very hard to build a library – we started with 1,500 books. The total number of books in HTC’s library has grown from 1,500 in 1995 to more than 64,000 volumes today. ‘The next step for HTC will be to develop our buildings so as to enlarge our library and give us more space for teaching.’

Andrew sees the development of HTC as nothing short of astonishing. ‘We had a five-year plan to get a degree up and running, and within five years we had our first PhD students coming near to graduation. Humanly speaking it doesn’t make a lot of sense, because we’ve never had a lot of money and we have had many difficulties, but the Lord keeps opening doors and making things possible that we hardly believed would be possible. Even now as we look back, it’s hard to believe we’ve travelled so far in such a short time.’

HTC’s story demonstrates one more way in which God is at work in our generation, using ordinary men to do things that few thought possible. Thank God that He is still at work, and still raising up men and women to serve Him.

This article was published in March 2008. Bookmark the permalink.