Bishopdale College


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 and 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 this school remains an irreplaceable part of our city's history and future.

Andrew Burn Suter. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Click image to enlarge

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 they were not accustomed to. 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 also begun with the opening of local colleges in the larger cities of Auckland and Christchurch, but Nelson's isolation meant that student access to these schools was restricted. Towards the end of his episcopate, Hobhouse privately purchased timber and the spacious 158-acre property of Bishopdale Estate, with the intention of creating a college.

In England, the incoming Bishop was warned of the desperate need for clergy trained in, and able to engage with, the people of Nelson. Proving himself as a visionary from the very day of his arrival, Bishop Andrew Suter brought with him four well-trained men to serve as tutors for the proposed school. Construction began on the Bishopdale site in early 1868 and was completed in 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). By 1876 the college was fully developed, with six students, and the following year, 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. The students 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 the students 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 danger of disregard for method and self-indulgence. However, the Bishop was very particular about the sort of student he wished to have at the school and this was the sort who would rise above the perceived shortcomings of such a distinctive institute. He believed that their small size was a disadvantage, but a valuable test of both his and his students' spirit and determination to prove their status among those who had studied at the large local colleges. Some students were justified a place because of academic aptitude, but others, who knew comparatively little, gained entry because of other moral qualifications important to Suter -  like humanity and genuineness of character.

Suter and his friends outside the College. Click image to enlarge.

The Bishop believed that long term and in-depth study was essential. This was because Christian ministers were bound to care for the souls of their congregation as well as their own. He once said, "Shallowness and incompleteness are our great dangers",1 with reference to both study and person:"We must be on guard against putting on a thin veneer and smattering of learning".2 The students had great respect for their mentors and often developed the same evangelical practices and values; part of this being 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.

The Bishop supported youth. He admired their exuberance and 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. He made it clear that he wished to involve the students in the current church issues. He felt that their opinions were to be respected and that to exclude them was doubting them undeservedly, when what they needed most was confidence. He stood up for Bishopdale Theological College against those who preferred a single institute or the study of theology, insisting that it would remove the opportunity for different ways of thinking expressed by his students. He believed that the study of different views was the only way to truly reach correctness. An analogy comparing the understandings of various colleges to different coloured beams of light was used. A pure white light can only be accomplished with the correct combination of colours.

Bishopdale College was achieving some spectacular results. In 1857 there were four clergy in Nelson but by 1886 there were 26, over half from the college. In the same year they provided nearly half the students throughout New Zealand who passed grade four of the Licentiate exam. However, in 1891, Suter fell ill and the school was closed. When Bishop Mules, who had in fact been a tutor, was consecrated in 1892, he planned to continue the college but then decided, due to a lack of funds, that training could be done more efficiently at the university centres. The college came to an end in 1908. When Bishop Sadlier took over in 1912 he began plans to include the isolated districts in ministry. He realised this could not be accomplished with the undermanned staff of the present clergy, so he resolved to reopen Bishopdale College. It was open for a short time from May 1913, but in August of the following year the Great War depleted the diocese of young men and prospective students and the school was forced to close once again.

Between 1914 and 1919 the number of clergy dropped from 37 to 23. There was a nationwide shortage and post-war training was concentrated in Christchurch and Auckland. However, the move to centralise theological training was not the ideal solution they had hoped for, as the intake shortages remained. A financial crisis in 1977 saw some of the remaining 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 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.

The college recommenced on 3 March 1979. It became a link in the Theological Education by Extension programme and aimed to provide Lay training to enrich the whole diocese and offer a basis on which students could build and extend to ordination at St Johns in Auckland if they wished. It was not until 1981 that, at the students' request, a qualification was considered. Bishopdale moved to offer its own optional diploma. For this students were required to study for four years with 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 for a tertiary provider was rather unorthodox. They taught people 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, 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 extend its influence to the regional areas. Enrolments had been recieved from Greymouth, Kaikoura and Cheviot. The introduction of Open Lecturers was also an important development. These were aimed at graduate students but attended by as many as 50 people. They brought people together from around the diocese in a rare opportunity to hear distinguished speakers on diverse and specialised subjects, providing an insight into the worldwide church. The college was also involved in responsibilities not previously envisaged outside their own domestic interests. These included the discussion of church issues, surveys and research models and establishing bi-cultural educational opportunities. The college was contributing to the wider church concerns and looking beyond the current state into the future.

In 1986, restructuring the curriculum was considered and two years later came a radical change. They decided that the production of local audio and visual study series' was not realistic and instead began purchasing a wide range of study resources at different levels. These were to be provided to the parishes as needed and gave Nelson 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 and the competence to share it in positive ministry. "Confidence without competence is a disaster, and competence without confidence is a waste".5 It brought Anglicans together in the changing community landscape and was much appreciated by other theological institutions in New Zealand.

In 2004 Bishop Eaton addressed Synod regarding the reconstitution of the college with a complete campus. In his position, he strived to find the essence of a truly evangelical diocese and church community. He considered it to be one that not only believed and taught the gospel but whose very life and spirit observed it, especially its future leaders. 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 continue those expressed by the leaders of the past. When Bishop Eaton resigned in 2006 and Bishop Richard Ellena took over, the diocese found perhaps the most committed figure to realise the vision of the college. As expressed in the official college DVD, parallels can be drawn between these men and Hobhouse and Suter. In 2008 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Laidlaw Bible College for a partnership designed to strengthen theological training in New Zealand.

Bishop Eaton HouseBishop Eaton House
Click to enlarge

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. Lay level for part-time interest. Degree level is 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 the aforementioned qualifications. Lastly, in 2011 a five-day intensive Graduate Diploma began. Initially, classes were first held in a single room in rented office space in Halifax St.. However, there was a need for a more settled home to help create the atmosphere desired, so in 2009 Bishop Eaton House in Vanguard Street, became the official campus of the college. It remains small but is well equipped to deliver high quality training and build strong relationships. It is recognised that we live in an environment of instant worldwide communication where the rapid circulation of views can shape the attitudes of those who the church trusts to guide its congregations and communicate the truth of the gospel. For this reason, students are expected to be reasoned and critical amongst 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 in is 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. The aim of the college was to consider meaningful ways to express the gospel in our simultaneously rural and urban context. It caters to the younger generation who think differently about lifestyle and belief, as Bishopdale always has.

In March 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 and 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 provides excitement and hope as the new college continues to adapt and expand into groundbreaking avenues of development.

Allie Tonks, Nelson College for Girls. 2011. Updated Mat 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Sutton, P. Personal Scrapbooks
  2. Ibid.
  3. Pickering, D.  Bishopdale Theological College interview via email. 14 June, 2011
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Evans, D. (2011) Bishopdale Theological College: From Vision To Realisation, DVD.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Oliver, D. (2011) Bishopdale Theological College Trust Board Trustees Information Folder.
  9. Unknown Authors, (1982) Diocesan Synod Yearbook, p.20

Want to find out more about the Bishopdale College ? View Further Sources here.

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  • Excellent article and very useful. A very small quibble - Bishop Suter was Andrew Burn not Andrew Burns, though it is often written that way. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Major-General Andrew Burn (1742-1814) of the Royal Marines, reputedly a notoriously over-enthusiastic evangelist. Maybe his troops didn't enjoy being made a captive audience! Ed. thank you - we will amend this.

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 14/03/2018 7:28pm (6 years ago)

  • This is an excellent summary of the history of Bishopdale Theological College. It is well written and thoroughly researched. Congratulations Allie.

    Posted by Helen Stephen-Smith, ()

  • Well done Allie. Enjoyable and informative - and very well written.

    Posted by Nathaniel Petterson, ()

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Further sources - Bishopdale College


  • Ault, H.F. (1958). The Nelson Narrative : the story of the Church of England in the diocese of Nelson, New Zealand, 1858 to 1958 : with an account of the years 1842 to 1857. The Standing Committee Of The Diocese Of Nelson: Nelson NZ.

  • Bester, R. (ed.) (2010). Harvest Of Grace: Essays In Celebration Of 150 Years Of Mission In The Anglican Diocese Of Nelson, The Standing Committee Of The Diocese Of Nelson: Nelson NZ.

  • Tunnicliff, S. (1992). The Selected Letters Of Mary Hobhouse, Daphne Brasell Associates Press: Wellington NZ.


  • O'Regan, S. (1997, November 22) Bishopdale: Hillside home with a rich heritage. Nelson Mail, p.11
  • Sutton, P. (1977, October 8) Marking chapel's centenary: many facts lost. Nelson Evening Mail


Bishopdale Theological College Archive Material


  • Unknown Authors, (1865). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson.

  • Unknown Authors, (1874). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1876). The Church Messenger, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1877). The Church Messenger, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1879). The Church Messenger, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1980). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1880). The Church Messenger, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1881). The Church Messenger, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1978). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1979). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1981). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1982). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1983). The New Witness, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1984). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1986). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1987). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1988). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson

  • Unknown Authors, (1989). Diocesan Synod Yearbook, Nelson Diocese: Nelson



  • Meadowcroft, J. Bishopdale Theological College, Interview via email, June 6, 2011

  • Petterson, N. Bishopdale Theological College, Interview via email, June 15, 2011

  • Pickering, D. Bishopdale Theological College, Interview via email, June 14, 2011

  • Smith, A.  Bishopdale Theological College, Interview via email,  June 16, 2011

Video Media

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



  • Ashton, L. (2009). Students and Faculty on Bishop Eaton House Balcony Photograph.

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

  • Stephen-Smith, H. et al. (2009). A Brief History of the College and Associated Library Developments, Informal Booklet.

  • Sutton, P. Personal Scrapbooks

  • Unknown Author. Nelson Provincial Museum Plaque. Andrew Burn Suter, 21 June 2011

Web Resources

  • Harris, T. et. al., Bishopdale Theological College Website,, date accessed 19/6/2011.