May 2017

Leading people to ‘aha’ moments in faith

Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne is “a wonderful place to learn and grow”, says Good Samaritan Sister Glenda Bourke, who has been teaching there for the last 22 years. “We really have a practical commitment to being a community of scholarship, prayer and pastoral care.”

BY Stephanie Thomas

Good Samaritan Sister Glenda Bourke’s first 25 years as an educator in primary and secondary schools in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, were enjoyable and rewarding. But it’s been in her last 22 years as an educator at tertiary level, where she’s been able to combine her love of teaching with her love of scripture, that Glenda has felt most fulfilled.

“What I really love is opening people’s minds to the scriptures and seeing the joy that comes to people when they say, ‘Ah, so that’s how it works; ah, so that’s how it fits together’,” says Glenda.

“It really is leading people to those ‘aha’ moments in faith that I really love; also challenging the talented to go that little bit further.”

Glenda first began teaching at Melbourne’s Yarra Theological Union (YTU), a college of the University of Divinity, as a tutor, in 1995, while finishing a Masters in Theology there concentrating on Biblical Studies. Since 1997 she has lectured mostly in the New Testament area, but has also a special interest in exploring links and developments between the first and second testaments in courses such as “Biblical Justice and the Reign of God”, a course that she teaches bi-annually.

Of the four Gospels, Glenda enjoys teaching John’s Gospel the most, but is quick to add, “When I’m teaching Mark or Luke I love those too”.

“I like John’s Gospel more because it is such a deeply spiritual Gospel and you cannot really study John without also having some kind of a spiritual experience,” she explains. “It’s such a living and dynamic spiritual Gospel.”

Glenda taught John’s Gospel “very happily for years”, but when Presentation Sister Mary Coloe, an internationally respected Johannine scholar joined YTU, Glenda knew that change was afoot.

“I had to say, ‘Mary, would you like to teach John’s Gospel?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I thought we’d have to have an arm wrestle over it!’ So I had to give up John then for her. So that was very sad,” Glenda recalls with good humour.

Glenda is a firm believer that a foundation in scripture is fundamental to any study of theology.

“Theology is really drawing out the riches from tradition and scripture; if you lose sight of what’s written in scripture, well you’ve lost the plot,” she says.

Glenda’s own foundational studies in scripture began in 1962 when she entered the Good Samaritan Sisters’ novitiate in Sydney. It was here as a 21 year-old that Glenda also discovered her love of scripture. She recognises her good fortune in entering the novitiate just as the heady years of the Second Vatican Council were unfolding. She’s also grateful for having a forward-thinking, wise and intelligent mentor – Mother Philomena Gallagher – who was responsible for her initial religious training and formation.

“We were so blessed”, says Glenda, “because Mother Philomena, our novice mistress, was thrilled with the teaching that emerged during Vatican II. She passed much material on to us. She was also a great lover of scripture and of ‘resurrection theology’.”

Glenda recalls that each year Mother Philomena would organise regular scripture schools for the novices, an initiative that was new and largely driven by the changes that were happening in the Church at the time.

“It was quite extraordinary to think we had these three scripture schools a year. Mother would prepare an overall theme. Then she would draw up topics from Genesis to the Book of Revelation and we would all prepare a scripture paper. It was a bit of a challenge presenting our papers before everyone else in the novitiate,” says Glenda.

“I owe my great love of scripture to Mother Philomena. She was just absolutely outstanding and set some challenging topics.”

Five decades on, it is Glenda who is now inspiring her students and helping them to gain a better understanding and love of scripture.

Since arriving at YTU in the 1990s, Glenda has witnessed considerable change in the demographics of the student population. When it first opened in the 1970s, YTU was a place of theological education and ministerial formation for members of religious orders, primarily seminarians; but over the years the number of lay people enrolling has grown substantially.   Glenda says there are now more lay people than seminarians, and of the seminarians, many are international students from religious orders in Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

“This great variety of students of all ages, stages, cultures and walks of life makes a rich and hospitable community,” she says.

Highlighting the changing face of the student population at YTU, Glenda mentions her experience last year of teaching a graduate class made up entirely of lay people.

“It is the first time that I have ever had a class without a member of a religious order in it. It was a wonderful group. Students were eager for as much reading as I could direct them to,” she says.

According to Glenda, the lay people who study theology come for a variety of reasons. They include: teachers or people involved in church ministry who want to upgrade their qualifications and enrich their understanding; women or retirees who have always wanted to study theology but haven’t had time because of family commitments or work; and students from other Christian denominations.

“Some people just come because they want to enrich their faith life. Others come out of curiosity, and because of fee-help, they can do that,” says Glenda. “Not all would necessarily say that they are seeking God, but that would be what a lot of people are doing.”

Do any students study theology without a faith commitment?

“You always have a few,” says Glenda. “I remember some years ago one guy said, ‘I’m going to be the first agnostic to ever graduate from YTU’.”

Glenda was able to tell him that he was probably not the first. “Interestingly this same guy had a profound conversion experience that changed his life!” she adds.

“Coming to study theology is really a test of faith, too. Some of the beliefs that people have held for ages can be challenged by the new insights with which they are presented. This is something that lecturers are aware of and sensitive to. So it is a place of challenge as well as a place of hospitality and joy.”

For Glenda, watching students “hungering and thirsting for more” as they participate in courses is “just wonderful”. “It is really satisfying when you see students growing in their understanding and their love of the scriptures.”

Glenda also finds working with her colleagues at YTU to be enriching and life-giving. The teaching faculty are mostly members of various religious orders, both male and female, who have had an association with YTU over the years. Most work in a part-time capacity.

“We also have a few fine lay lecturers,” says Glenda. “We would like to have more, but finances present us with a challenge.”

YTU is one of several colleges of the University of Divinity, which Glenda describes as a “small”, “unique” and “specialised” university. But small does not necessarily mean less. As Glenda testifies, both as a past student and current faculty member, “YTU is a wonderful place to learn and grow, as we really have a practical commitment to being a community of scholarship, prayer and pastoral care”.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.