Methodist Minister Reverend Dr Sir Ralph Waller KBE has told of his pride after being awarded an honorary doctorate from Liverpool Hope University.
Sir Ralph was awarded a Doctor of Education (EdD, honoris causa) in a ceremony alongside the award of doctorates to 22 students of Liverpool Hope.
A passionate educator, he’s the Director of the Farmington Institute at Harris Manchester College, a constituent college of the University of Oxford.
The Farmington Institute is dedicated to providing scholarships, resources and short-term placements in universities for Religious Education teachers in primary and secondary schools.
Many Religious Education practitioners have arrived at Hope through this unique partnership.
And speaking at the graduation event, Sir Ralph stressed the importance of continuing to teach Religious Education in schools, explaining how it helps to provide a crucial bedrock of understanding across a whole range of disciplines, from human relationships and democracy to ecology and the environment.
The Lincolnshire-born Reverend, who was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2018 for services to education, explains: “At the Farmington Institute, we think of RE in quite broad terms, really. One of the things we’re interested in is presenting Christian values - not that Christian values are very different from human values, but they add a different intensity.
“It’s about kindness, generosity, caring for other people, treating people as you’d like them to treat you. Also, it’s very important to understand - in the multi-faith world in which we live - what it’s like to be someone with a different faith, and to have some sympathy for that, while also trying to find things in common.
“From the point of view of children, it’s one of the few subjects that really raises the big questions, particularly about relationships, and one of the few subjects where children can discuss issues that arise in their own lives. And that’s really important for young people.
“Religious Education also addresses Ecology. If you really believe the world was created by God, however you believe that happened, you want to preserve it and pass it on to future generations, not to selfishly destroy it.
“Religious Education also teaches democracy. From a Christian standpoint, we believe in a God who made all his children differently but who values them all equally. RE provides the basis for why everyone should have a vote, why everyone is important, and it also values people who might not necessarily be able to make a direct contribution to society.”
While the teaching of Religious Education is compulsory in schools, RE is sometimes described as a neglected ‘Cinderella’ subject. GCSE Religious Education (RE) was controversially excluded from the English Baccalaureate - a particular group of GCSE subjects that are typically looked on favourably by universities - in 2010.
But Sir Ralph, former Principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford between 2010 and 2018, adds: “It’s very important that we keep Religious Education in schools. It should be compulsory in schools, unless people have conscientious reasons for not doing it.
“And I’d like to see RE in the English Baccalaureate if we can get it back in, because it’s a really good subject that covers so many disciplines - history, critical analysis, languages, art. It cuts across so many different areas that it’s also a really interesting subject to study, even if one is not studying from a point of view of faith.
“Also, you can’t really study English literature, and understand the poet Milton, if you don’t know something about the Bible. That’s perhaps a good example of its importance.”
Sir Ralph, who was awarded the UK Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, praised Hope for looking after the Religious Education teachers who arrive at the University as part of the Farmington Institute’s scholarship programme.
He said: “Hope has been really good at supporting the teachers on the scholarships. Hope provides for us an academic community. And if you’re a teacher in a school, the scholarship is a wonderful opportunity to have access to the library and resources, but also colleagues who you can spark ideas off and make friends with.
“The second thing that Hope does is provide our teachers with a supervisor to oversee a teacher’s project. This project not only involves doing something that will help their teaching but, hopefully, will also be a beneficial resource to others across the world, whether it’s a series of lesson plans or advice on how to teach RE at A Level.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed by Hope - by its facilities, the way in which it has looked after the Farmington scholars, and by the general friendliness of the campus.”
Sir Ralph described receiving the honorary doctorate as a ‘great honour and a real privilege’ and expressed his gratitude ‘to all the members of Liverpool Hope University’.
He added: “It’s wonderful to be here in this great city, for a start. I’ve always loved Liverpool humour. There’s that nice story where a Liverpudlian says, ‘You know, first Birmingham claimed to be England’s second city, then it was Manchester. But we in Liverpool know that it’s London’!
“And Hope is a wonderful university. Every time I’ve come I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve also been very impressed by all the members of staff.
“And it’s doing something not all universities do - it’s encouraging people to study. And that’s what universities are for.”
Sir Ralph might also be sending a very special student to Hope in the future…
In 2018, the singing global superstar Katy Perry visited the University of Oxford and spent time with Sir Ralph, discussing Theology.
And Sir Ralph reveals: “I thought Katy was a lovely personality. I enjoyed meeting her and she was really interested in Theology. I did try to persuade her to do a degree - and I haven’t given up hope that I might one day be successful. She’s a very impressive young woman.
“And if she comes to Hope to study Theology, I will be very pleased!”