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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012

Bishopdale Theological College: Passion, Faith and Scholarship

page 36

Bishopdale Theological College: Passion, Faith and Scholarship

Suter and his students outside the College. Left to right: Mr Dobson, Mr Blackiston, Mrs Suter, Mr Adcock, Mr Bennett, Mr Galway and Bishop Suter. Photo supplied by author.

Suter and his students outside the College. Left to right: Mr Dobson, Mr Blackiston, Mrs Suter, Mr Adcock, Mr Bennett, Mr Galway and Bishop Suter. Photo supplied by author.

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A unique and inspirational institution, Bishopdale Theological College is the only college of its kind to ever exist in provincial New Zealand. Its evangelical convictions have remained true, while it has adapted through more than 140 years of challenges in a modernising world. It has certainly had its trials, but the fundamental need for clerical training in the church, not just in Nelson, but throughout New Zealand, will ensure that it remains an irreplaceable part of our city’s history and future.

“Suter was the very soul of the college and set the tone for the first 23 years of its life.”

Plans for a theological college began in 1867 with Nelson’s first Bishop, Edmund Hobhouse. At the time, clergy were sourced from England. Their supply was unreliable and they were challenged in connecting with an independent, colonial culture to which they were not accustomed. Some of the pioneers had a rebellious attitude and were not as willing to conform to church ideals as the English congregations.

A systematic endeavour of ecclesiastical education had begun with the opening of local colleges in Auckland and Christchurch, but Nelson’s isolation restricted student access to them. Towards the end of his episcopate, Hobhouse privately purchased the 158- acre Bishopdale Estate as a location for the Bishop’s residence and the college he intended to create. He also bought timber for the construction.

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In England, the incoming Bishop was warned of the desperate need for clergy trained in Nelson and able to engage with its people. Proving himself as a visionary, Bishop Andrew Suter brought with him four well-trained men to serve as tutors for the proposed school. Construction began on the Bishopdale College in early 1868 and was completed that September. In 1869 students moved in to live with Suter and his wife and the college began, sparking a new age of growth for the Nelson diocese.

In 1874 Suter created the Board of Theological Studies, which set national exams and provided the Licentiate qualification (LTh). The college was fully developed by 1876, with six students, and the following year it became affiliated with the University of New Zealand. This provided students with the opportunity for specialist subjects and meant that studying for an LTh could be entirely completed at Bishopdale.

They had seventeen-hour days, with much of the time devoted to lessons based on those from England, including Evolution, The Meaning Of Hell, Classical Studies, Physics, Structural Botany, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. They were also afforded an intimate look into the life and dealings of the Bishop, who even took them on his pastoral tours. This would have been a valuable and certainly unique learning experience in their line of study.

Suter was the very soul of the college and set the tone for the first 23 years of its’ life. He had a strong influence on the students, who were attracted from all over the country. They varied in age, attainment and circumstances, but the college’s unique environment forged strong bonds and unity. A peculiar feature of the school was its homeliness. The Suters had no family, and so many of the students, admitted by personal invitation, became like sons.

This fostered the cordiality and mutual respect necessary for discussions of theology, but also posed the dangers of disregard for method and self-indulgence. The Bishop was very particular about the kind of student he wished to have at the college, wanting those who would rise above the perceived shortcomings of such a distinctive institute. He believed its small size was a disadvantage, but that this provided a valuable test of both his and his students’ spirit and determination to prove their status among those who had studied at larger colleges. Some students gained a place because of academic aptitude, but others who knew comparatively little were accepted because they had moral qualifications important to Suter, like humanity and genuineness of character.

The Bishop believed that long term in-depth study was essential, because Christian ministers were bound to care for the souls of their congregation, as well as their page 39 own. He once said, “Shallowness and incompleteness are our great dangers”1, and, with reference to both study and person, “We must be on guard against putting on a thin veneer and smattering of learning2”. The students had great respect for their mentors, often developing the evangelical practices and values they displayed, including an immersion in the community. In 1880 they took these mentors, and others who wished to join them, on a great expedition to Mount Arthur. With their tents pitched, each with a coloured bannerette of the St Andrews Cross, they were described as picturesque and war-like, conveying the camaraderie established between them.

Bishop Suter supported youth, admiring their exuberance. He had an odd appreciation for their colourful clothes, saying they had plenty of time for bland robes in the future. But he was their advocate in serious matters of the church too, making it clear that he wished to involve them in current church issues. He felt that the students’ opinions needed respect, and that to exclude them was to doubt them undeservedly, when what they needed most was confidence.

Suter stood up for Bishopdale Theological College against those who preferred a single institute, insisting that it would remove the opportunity for the different ways of thinking expressed by his students. He believed that the study of different views was the only way to truly reach correctness, using an analogy which compared the understandings of various colleges to different coloured beams of light. A pure white light could only be accomplished with the correct combination of colours.

It was achieving some spectacular results. In 1857 there were four clergy in Nelson, but by 1886 there were 26, with over half from the college. In the same year they provided nearly half of all the students who passed grade four of the Licentiate exam.

Suter fell ill, however, and resigned in 1891, causing the college to close. Bishop Mules, a former tutor at Bishopdale, was consecrated in 1892 and it reopened in 1893. He planned to continue the college, but a lack of funds brought the decision that training could be done more efficiently at the university centres, and it came to an end in 1908.

When Bishop Sadlier took over in 1912 he began plans to include the isolated districts in ministry. Realising this could not be accomplished with the undermanned staff of the existing clergy, he resolved to reopen Bishopdale College. This occurred in May 1913, but in August of the following year the Great War depleted the diocese of young men and, lacking prospective students, the college was forced to close once again. Between 1914 and 1919 the number of clergy dropped from 37 to 23 and page 40 there was a nationwide shortage. Post-war theological training was concentrated in Christchurch and Auckland, but this centralisation was not the ideal solution and intake shortages remained.

A financial crisis in 1977 saw some clergy forced into early retirement or relocation and a depression took hold of the diocese. Lay people were now relied upon to do the work of the clergy. A survey was conducted to ascertain the best way to help the community, the result of which was the expressed wish of the people for ‘good quality input to upgrade their understanding of faith and their skills in living and promoting it’.3

Meanwhile, Bishop Sutton had visited England and noticed the significant growth of small teaching colleges and groups for lay people throughout the world. He had met many people involved with this educational phenomenon and, upon his return, joined those who saw the revival of the college as the best way forward.

Bishopdale College recommenced on March 3, 1979 and it became a link in the Theological Education by Extension programme. It aimed to provide Lay training, to enrich the whole diocese, and offered a basis on which students could build and, if they wished, extend to ordination at St Johns in Auckland. It was not until 1981 that, at the students’ request, a qualification was considered. The college moved to offer its own optional diploma for which students were required to study for four years. There was a majority of compulsory biblical history subjects, and either theological, or a combination of theological and elective contextual subjects.

The new courses were designed to provide learning (albeit specific) at a level for anyone who wanted it, no matter their academic competency. This sentiment was rather unorthodox for a tertiary provider. Students were taught to think theologically, rather than to know many facts, in the belief that ‘the handling of knowledge is much more important’4 than the knowledge itself. For the first time, group ‘classes’ took place in multiple locations around the diocese. By 1983 the college had trained several hundred students as lay people, for effective ministry in partnership with clergy. On April 16 that year the Archbishop of Canterbury presented 22 diplomas and spoke encouragingly of theological education and its future.

In 1984 the college began to strengthen its outreach and extended its influence to the regional areas. Enrolments had been received from Greymouth, Kaikoura and Cheviot. The introduction of Open Lectures was another important development. These were aimed at graduate students, but were attended by as many as 50 people. They brought people together from around the diocese in a rare opportunity to page 41 hear distinguished speakers on diverse and specialised subjects which provided an insight into the worldwide church.

The college also became involved in responsibilities not previously envisaged, and outside their own domestic interests. These included the discussion of church issues, surveys and research models and the establishing of bi-cultural educational opportunities. It was contributing to the wider church concerns and looking to future.

Restructuring of the curriculum was considered in 1986 and a radical change came two years later. It was decided that the production of local audio and visual study series was not realistic and, instead, the purchasing of a wide range of study resources was begun. These were provided to the parishes as needed, and gave access to the best materials available. Bishopdale Theological College was now a community resource centre. It gave new life and hope to the diocese, and encouraged those involved to have confidence in their faith, together with the competence to share it in positive ministry. ‘Confidence without competence is a disaster, and competence without confidence is a waste’.5

In 2004 Bishop Eaton addressed Synod regarding the reconstitution of the college with a complete campus. As Bishop, he strove to find the essence of a truly evangelical diocese and church community. He considered it to be not only one that believed and taught the gospel, but also one whose very life and spirit observed it. Bishopdale Theological College would train its students both theologically and practically to bring the gospel to, and inspire the world around them.

There were strong links with the past in this ‘new’ theological college. Its culture, environment and values continued those expressed by the leaders of the past. When Bishop Eaton resigned in 2006, Bishop Richard Ellena took over and showed his commitment to realising the vision of the college. As expressed in the official college DVD, parallels can be drawn between these men and Hobhouse and Suter.

After several years of planning and discussion, Bishopdale Theological College was re-opened in February 2008. There were three levels of courses offered, with similar focuses to those of the initial college. Firstly, lay level for part-time interest. Secondly, degree level for students wanting to attain a Bachelor of Theology or Ministries. These contain internship style components for contextual work and require three years of full time study. A one-year Diploma of Ministries can be used towards these qualifications. Lastly, in 2011, a five-day intensive Graduate Diploma began.

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Bishop Eaton House today. Photo supplied by author.

Bishop Eaton House today. Photo supplied by author.

Initially, classes were held in a room in rented office space in Halifax Street. There was a need for a more settled home to help create the atmosphere desired, however, and in 2009 Bishop Eaton House became the official campus of the college. It is small, but is well equipped to deliver high quality training and build strong relationships. Students are expected to be reasoned and critical and to have other qualities like courage, humility and spirit. These are extremely reminiscent of Suter’s early expectations.

In 2010 the roll of the college reached 28, yet it was still heavily involved in outreach. Eaton House is described as the ‘hub of a wheel’6, as the school is in the process of extending its classes to host churches in Tauranga, Hamilton, Greymouth and Marlborough. Additionally, the Institute for New Anglicanism initiative was introduced to prepare ‘new thinking in the face of challenges in a diverse and modern world’7. With a focus on new modes of ministry, annual schools of preaching and theology were established.

In March 2011 an inaugural graduation ceremony was held for the first five graduates of the new college. Nearly 100 years after its effective closing as a campus school, the reopening was a landmark event in the history of theological education in New Zealand. It was hailed by Bishop Ellena as ‘one of the most far-reaching and visionary initiatives’8 to have come from the Synod in many years. The continuity of trusts like Bishopdale Theological College ‘link us with our past and bind us to our future’9. A future that continues the legacy of passionate evangelical leaders and page 43 provides excitement and hope as the new college continues to adapt and expand into groundbreaking avenues of development.


Due to space limitations the bibliography used for this article has been unable to be reproduced here. For a full list see: www.theprow.org.nz/bishopdale-college/#Further_sources or contact the editor.

1 Sutton, P., Personal Scrapbooks.

2 Ibid.

3 Pickering, D., 14/6/2011, Bishopdale Theological College interview via email.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Evans, D., (2011) Bishopdale Theological College: From Vision To Realisation, DVD.

7 bid.

8 Oliver, D., (2011) Bishopdale Theological College Trust Board Trustees Information Folder.

9 Unknown Authors, (1982) Diocesan Synod Yearbook, p.20.