Who would study theology? I did, and I'll tell you why ...

Theologians want to update their subject, but it already works as a career path

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It was always the dinner party question I dreaded, because I knew what was coming next. Whenever I told someone I was reading theology, the predictable reply was: "Ah, so you want to be a priest?"

Being reasonably good-natured, I tried to laugh it off, perhaps adding: "No, actually. A nun." But deep down all the feelings of paranoia about the future, career, and Life, broke the surface of student illusion and I would ask myself why on earth I was devoting three years to studying such a dusty, crusty subject, which apparently only qualified me to serve in a ministry which did not at the time accept women. (The unvarnished truth is that it seemed a good way to get an offer of a place from a good university.)

Thirty-six academics, including the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, where theology was the first course to be devised - and where I ended up studying it - have signed up to a campaign to make UK theologians more open to contemporary culture, more international in their outlook and more responsive to other religions. As one of them says, "Theology too often seems an academic sideline, outdated and dusty, and of little relevance to modern life." Quite.

But then, all of a sudden, I find myself coming over all nostalgic. I remember, with surprising fondness, my deeply eccentric tutor, a walking authority on Mesopotamian Creation Myths, who probably dreams in Hebrew. Perhaps all that poring over sacred texts and ancient tomes in the dimming light of the Bodlean was not such a bad idea, after all.

And careerwise, at least, theology stood us in good stead. Not one of my theologian friends had to resort to donning a dog collar in order to earn a living. Between us, there is a television researcher, a theatrical agent, a Walt Disney producer, an artist, a court reporter, a primary school teacher, a financial journalist, a literary agent, a nightclub singer, and a spy. As one contemporary said: "All the people I know who read theology are either in the film industry or insane."

Susan, now a court reporter, says theology helps with her job. "You know, the Greek and the crappy Old Testament references. Judges and barristers come up with phrases like: "Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon" and I know what they're on about."

Lucy, now a primary school teacher, says the theologian mantle has its advantages. "People think you're quite scholarly. It's never bad to fool people a little bit like that," she says, adding that she enjoyed telling people she wanted to be a nun. But perhaps Katherine gives the most honest answer of all. "What did I get out of reading theology? A degree from Oxford."

Another consequence of reading theology is that it leaves you with a healthy scepticism towards religion. The majority of us started out as confirmed Christians and ended up with our eyes wide open about the true origins of the Gospels.

"Where does theology get you in the end?" asks the Oxford prospectus. "One hopes that those who read theology will arrive at a better understanding of Christianity, whatever their reaction to it, and equally important, at a better understanding of themselves and their world, in whatever direction this leads them." For a few, that is the Church; for the rest of us, the World.

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