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Catholic Vancouver Jan. 30, 2019

Christians on campus uniting in a secular environment

By Agnieszka Ruck

St. Mark’s College and Vancouver School of Theology have teamed up to offer a joint undergraduate program, an ecumenical initiative that expresses "a common Christian voice and perspective" on the secular UBC campus. (Photos courtesy of St. Mark’s College)

Catholic and Protestant scholars at the University of British Columbia are finding ways to actually use the Reformation to bring them closer together.

The historic event that caused a huge schism between the Catholic Church and Protestant Reformers in the 16th century has prompted members of St. Mark’s College and the Vancouver School of Theology to work together in unique ways.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, two professors from each of the schools co-taught a course on St. Augustine of Hippo, a major thinker for both Christian denominations.

“Augustine really did bring us together,” said Paul Burns, church history professor at St. Mark’s.

He and VST homiletics professor Jason Byassee offered the course in the 2017-2018 school year. “Augustine was used by both Catholics and Protestants during the period of the Reformation. Both communities would appeal to Augustine,” said Burns.

He and Byassee “found a lot of common ground in the pastoral applications of Augustine and his theology.” Their students, meanwhile, “enjoyed the opportunity to give both points of view a fair hearing.”

Since offering the course, the Catholic and Protestant communities have drawn even closer together. St. Mark’s principal Peter Meehan announced late last year that the schools have since joined hands in their biggest partnership yet: a joint VST and St. Mark’s undergraduate degree in theology and culture, which seamlessly transfers into VST’s graduate programs.

“We have a lot to learn from engaging on a scholarly level with people who have studied the Scriptures and understand the history of the Church,” said Meehan.

We have nothing to fear by engaging in healthy dialogue with people who are serious Christians, who are interested in advancing theological understanding.”

VST principal Richard Topping (right) with St. Mark’s College principal Peter Meehan, VST Registrar Anita Fast, and strategy executive director Gabrielle Pillay.

Meehan added the secular environment at the University of British Columbia helps the various Christian colleges on site – all minuscule compared to the giant university – find ways to work together.

“We’re doing something very unique,” in the context of a secular university. “We come together in a lot of ways to express a common Christian voice and perspective.”

Christians are part of the diversity of society after all, and therefore of the diversity of UBC, Meehan likes to say.

A collegial, ecumenical relationship has been growing between these two Christian schools for several years. Meehan noted that St. Mark’s College has been renting space at VST since it outgrew its small facilities.

Members of both schools also came together for an ecumenical prayer service Jan. 23, hosted at St. Mark’s and featuring a sermon by VST scholar Alecia Greenfield. That event was hosted in celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held around the world Jan. 18-25.

St. Mark’s has been hosting joint worship services for students and community members of various faiths during this international week since at least 2011.

“Faith engagement is such a tenuous thing for many people. We have to understand to engage them in the work of the Church, and the faith of the Church means to understand their perspective, their attitudes, their experiences,” said Meehan. “This dialogue goes a long way.”