The Claremont School of Theology, a seminary of the United Methodist Church, has decided to become America’s first theological Burger King, where students of various religions can have it their way. According to the Los Angeles Times:
In a bow to the growing diversity of America’s religious landscape, the Claremont School of Theology, a Christian institution with long ties to the Methodist Church, will add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall, to become, in a sense, the first truly multi-faith American seminary.
The transition, which is being formally announced Wednesday, upends centuries of tradition in which seminaries have hewn not just to single faiths but often to single denominations within those faiths. Eventually, Claremont hopes to add clerical programs for Buddhists and Hindus.
In a way, I suppose this was inevitable, especially on the West Coast. Places such as Claremont are no longer really seminaries, anyway, but “schools of religion” not unlike Harvard Divinity School (despite the Harvard name, that isn’t a compliment). Not that the denomination is real thrilled about it:
Claremont’s administration sees the multi-faith expansion as the wave of the future in American theological training. But it is straining relations between the school and more conservative elements of the United Methodist Church, which this year was expected to provide about 8% of Claremont’s $10-million budget. The church suspended its support for the school earlier this year pending an investigation.
Marianne E. Inman, president of the church’s University Senate, which oversees Methodist seminaries, declined to comment on Claremont’s plans, referring a reporter to a January statement in which she took the school to task for failing to consult with the church body on budget matters and on “a substantial reorientation of the institution’s mission.”
To me, the interesting thing about this controversy is the way the seminary is operating as though it is some kind of independent entity. It’s by no means the first to do that, of course, but rather illustrative of the tendency of theological (at least liberal ones, whether Protestant or Catholic) academics to act as though they work in a vacuum, where the whole idea of accountability to the church is considered essentially antithetical to the school’s “mission,” however that’s defined. Why the members of the denominations to which such schools are still nominally connected would want to continue to fund them is anybody’s guess.