Saturday, July 07, 2007

Guest Posting from Robert Jordan Ross

A report from a meeting held at GA which indicates Meadville Lombard's plans for the future in the new and unsettled field of Unitarian Universalist Theological Education. I pass it along as a way to provide a forum for discussion about that subject. My thoughts and approach in a separate post.

Power, centralized? [Written 23 June, A.D. 2007]

I was a guest today at perhaps the best development presentation I have
have ever witnessed. The leaders of Meadville Lombard Theological School
(MLTS) held a breakfast presentation at the Doubletree Hotel in
Portland, Ore. Although it was at 7:00 a.m., a large banquet hall was
nearly filled. The program began on time, with excellent singing, clear
words of welcome, a good invocation and a step-by-step message of the
school's planned future. Interspersed video presentations gave life to
it all and the morning closed with a request for pledges that left most
of us wanting to sign the family farm away to them.

All this was one event at the General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA). Most such conventions
are occasions by many groups for fund raising. The morale is high, the
sense of being strong is present with perhaps five thousand four hundred
people attending, and there's an exhilaration in the air, a confidence
in our future.

Listening carefully is important. Subtexts of messages are as important
in some cases as the primary words themselves. Here are some of the
things I think I heard at the breakfast presentation:

1) The goal of our liberal religion is to be a primary and effective
political influence worldwide. [This is similar to the statements in the
newly begun The Time is Now campaign being run by the UUA.] Through our
understanding of religious and cultural diversity and our training in
working with this melange, we will be able to influence the directions
that humans as a whole take, moving them into adopting ways consistent
with our collective take on justice and equity in human relations.

2) Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) in Berkeley Calif.
was invited to discuss ways of 'cooperation' with Meadville. They have
chosen, for now, not to pursue that further. MLTS wishes them well and
is surging forward. There may be no SKSM in three decades if MLTS
succeeds in becoming, as I believe I heard said, The Center for
theological training and development for the UUA. Harvard Divinity
School, as a University school, is outside this realm of parochial

3) A Chicago Alderman is dealing with MLTS with regard to making
'available' a larger piece of land than the school now has. MLTS would
move from the center of the University to a location south of The Midway
at the edge of the black community. This would serve to increase MLTS's
knowledge of and skill at dealing with diverse peoples.

4) Much money will be needed, perhaps some $30,000,000, to meet these
goals. More than a million has been pledged or given thus far.

Beyond what I think I heard, there are implications of this that are
interesting, I think that some of these might be:

a) The now 39 year old pattern of encouraging all new theological
students, from UU schools and from a diverse range of schools to get on
the track for coming into our ministry may be sidetracked. The older
pre-1968 pattern, of shepherding and supporting just those going to
'our' schools and asking the others to apply for fellowship when they're
ready to graduate might be re-introduced. The development of a well
regulated training center would encourage consistent education.
Diversity, especially Christian theological education, might be sharply

b) The ethos of the New Theological Center and the UUA might be more in
line with one another. The core interests would perhaps be less the
congregations, and more the overarching purpose of what is increasingly
being referred to as "our movement".

c) MLTS cooperation with the City of Chicago might be seen as being in
conflict with our opposition to faith based initiatives.

d) The perhaps $600,000 annually available through the UUA for
theological development, which goes now, and is planned to go in the
future as well, to students from different locations, might be
concentrated for study at MLTS and continue this way, with none of the
70% attending Christian or University schools benefiting appreciably
from it.

Overall, one is reminded that power is the enemy of diversity in so many
instances. [Democrats tend usually to be united in their national goals,
Republicans usually at odds with one another. Democrats are better at
controlling diversity.] From a UU Christian standpoint, this might not
have too erosive an effect on UU Christian ministry and theology, since
the preferences at MLTS and SKSM have long been pointed away from that
direction. But the concentration of attention and effort on a single
emerging school could make graduates of Union, Claremont, Andover-Newton
(currently this school has our largest UU student body) and other
schools feel more like step-children than 'joint heirs with Christ of
the Kingdom'.

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, England, is fond of saying that realizing
and using our freedom are the two greatest gifts of a life lived in
Christ. So how can we ensure that we can help MLTS and SKSM, our
ministerial candidates and our churches without compromising our liberty
-- and our fairness.


Kim Hampton said...

If it's really true that Meadville sees the primary purpose/goal of our liberal religious movement as being a political force, I need to leave now.

There are plenty of liberal political forces out there and we can work with them, but it should not be the church's primary purpose/goal. At some point we going to have to remember that we are a RELIGIOUS institution, not a social/political club.

Clyde said...

The UU Board of Trustee's and the UU Fund for Theological Education are moving in the opposite direction of this MLTS vision. The argument being made that funding mainly MLTS and SKSM when 70% go somewhere else is inequitable and does not contribute toward excellence in ministry. Why spend our money on maintaining an institution when we could be spending the same money on educating students What Meadville needs to prove is that its students are benefit from being educated in sectarian isolation while those educated in an interfaith/ecumenical setting are at disadvantage in leading UU congregations in transformative ministries. The evidence for this MLTS advantage is lacking and their is plenty of counter evidence.