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Seminary announces multifaith project


3:00 PM June 15, 2010

Claremont School of Theology, which has had Methodist ties since its founding in 1885, will be part of one of the first accredited institutions to train students of multiple faiths for careers as clerics. A UMNS photo courtesy of Claremont School of Theology.
Claremont School of Theology will be part of one of the first accredited institutions to train students of multiple faiths for careers as clerics. A UMNS photo courtesy of Claremont School of Theology.
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United Methodist students preparing for a career in ordained ministry will study side by side with Jewish and Muslim students at one of the church’s 13 schools of theology this fall.

Claremont School of Theology, which has had Methodist ties since its founding in 1885, will be part of one of the first accredited institutions to train students of multiple faiths for careers as clerics. The 275-student seminary offers master’s and doctoral degrees.

The Rev. Jerry Campbell, president of Claremont, along with Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion; Imam Jihad Turk, Islamic Center of Southern California; and Najeeba Syeed-Miller, Claremont’s first Muslim faculty member, announced their new partnership, called the University Project, at a press conference June 9.

The latest news could further complicate the school’s relationship with the denomination.

The “reorientation” of the school’s mission and questions about missing audits led the denomination’s University Senate to place Claremont on public warning in January. The Senate has withheld Ministerial Education Funds since January, and will meet June 23-24 to determine Claremont’s status.

In 2006 – two weeks after Campbell became president – the Western Association of Schools and Colleges voted to terminate Claremont’s accreditation for not being in compliance with commission standards around financial planning and management. The association reversed its decision after the school balanced its budget through an 8.5 percent reduction and decreased the amount it had been drawing from its endowment.

Campbell said the University Senate sent a team to review the college in April and he is optimistic the sanction will be removed and Claremont will receive the withheld funds.

The University Project

The Claremont board of trustees approved the University Project in 2008. It is funded by a $10 million gift from David and Joan Lincoln, members of Paradise Valley United Methodist Church near Scottsdale, Ariz.  

Lincoln said the funds were donated to create “a light for the world in terms of intercultural understanding, ethical integrity and religious intelligence in education.”

Jerry Campbell president, Claremont Theological Seminary. Photo by Ronny Perry.
Jerry Campbell, president, Claremont Theological Seminary. Photo by Ronny Perry.
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“It is exciting and necessary if we are going to have world peace,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Each institution in the University Project will operate financially separate from the others.

“The University Project ensures that Claremont School of Theology will remain a separate institution. Claremont will be the Protestant school in this new collaborative relationship,” said Jon Hooten, Claremont’s director of communication. “Any funds received from the MEF – as well as from our loyal alums, congregations and other friends – will continue to be received by the Claremont School of Theology and used for ministerial education.”

The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said Claremont will remain a United Methodist school of theology.

“Claremont will continue in the Christian tradition, training clergy religious leaders in all three traditions, providing an opportunity for persons in all three traditions to learn from each other and to build relationships,” she said.

Campbell stressed the importance of having future religious leaders who see themselves as neighbors and friends.

“We’re not trying to create a hybrid,” he said. “If you come here as a United Methodist, we hope you leave here as a much wiser United Methodist, someone who understands his or her neighbors – which in California and much of the world is a multicultural and multireligious mix.”

Differing opinions

Still some wonder if the change to the institution’s mission might call for redefinition of what it means to be a United Methodist seminary.

Claremont’s mission statement doesn’t mention the words “Jesus, Christ or Christianity,” said the Rev. Talbot Davis, pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.

“At an institution supported by dollars from local United Methodist congregations. And United Methodism is, after all, a self-avowed Christian denomination,” he said. “I am no fundamentalist. But Jesus is decisive, and our churches long for pastors who believe as much. Syncretism is a grave danger, not a friend.”

In a July 2009 essay, Riley B. Case, associate director of the Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church, argued that Claremont should be disqualified from being an official United Methodist seminary.

“Claremont can obviously do what it wants to do,” he wrote. “But does The United Methodist Church need continually to pour (money) into such an institution? Isn’t (The UMC) supposed to be … about winning disciples to Jesus Christ?”

The Rev. Rob Rynders, United Methodist campus minister at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and a 2006 Claremont graduate, said he received an “excellent” education from the school.

“What I appreciated most is that Claremont did not force me into a box or indoctrinate me into a specific type of theology. What I think is so bold and creative about the new Claremont project is that it’s visionary, it’s controversial, and it’s creating a whole lot of debate and conversation that is needed to shake up progressive United Methodists. It’s forcing us to look ourselves in the mirror and see if we have what it takes to turn around the decline of The United Methodist Church in the western U.S.”  

Claremont graduate student Ekaputra Tupamahu wrote in his blog that the spirit behind the project is not to make people give up their faith, but to help people from different religious backgrounds understand each other. He and his wife are ministers of the Assemblies of God in Indonesia.

“It is very naīve if we think that we have to give up our Christian beliefs in order to be able to talk or sit in a classroom with people from other religions,” Tupamahu wrote. “We can see interreligious theological education in almost all non-Christian theological educational settings (community colleges, universities, etc.). Please think about this: If ordinary Christians can do it, why not clergy?”

*Butler and Gilbert are writers of 18-34 content at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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