Blind Faith

By James Abraham

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Posted July 15, 2010 in News

When the Claremont School of Theology decided it was time to be a little open minded about, oh, all those other religions and denominations out there, you’d think the school would get props for showing some interfaith love. No such luck.

The exact opposite happened.

When the Methodist Powers That Be—actually the University Senate of The United Methodist Church—got wind that the Claremont school was planning on creating an interfaith graduate consortium dubbed “The University Project,” the theological shtick hit the fan. The Church placed the School on “public warning” and imposed sanctions on the school, a punishment that took the form of holding back nearly $1 million in funding.

“We thought we had vetted it with the right people,” Claudia Pearce, the school’s director of public relations, tells the Weekly. “But apparently this kind of idea was pretty scary.”

So much for bridging religious divides.

“That’s what we wanted to do; bridge religious divides,” Pearce says. “But we have to realize that there are a lot of conservative Christians out there that believe that we shouldn’t be trying to have better relations with other religions, we should be trying to convert other religions.”

The University Project, which is still set to open this fall, would bring together Christians, Jews and Muslims who are pursuing divinity degrees—in their particular faith, naturally. The Claremont School is believed to be the first accredited institution to train folks of different faiths to lead their respective congregations. Plans to include Buddhists and Hindus are also in the mix, according to Pearce.

But back in January, this interfaith concept of bringing non-Methodists on campus—remember, the school was essentially opening its doors to help train the imams, rabbis and pastors of tomorrow—hit a sour note with the church. Fears over a “substantial tation” of the school’s mission were aired. And since the Church provides $800,000 to the school, you can bet your John Wesley preaching that it’s got leverage.

One critic went further in his outspoken statements regarding the Project.

“Claremont seems to be moving away from its responsibility to the United Methodist Church,” Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist said in the Los Angeles Times. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington D.C.-based ecumenical group. “It almost seems that they’re trying to fulfill the stereotype that many in the church have of liberal Methodism on the West Coast.”

School officials apparently had to placate church officials to let them know they weren’t turning the institution into a theological free-for-all. In essence, Claremont had to placate fears “that we were turning a United Methodist-related seminary into something very different,” School President Jerry Campbell said in published reports.

“If you come here as a United Methodist, we believe you will leave here as a United Methodist who better understands his or her neighbors, which in California and much of the world is a multi-cultural, multi-religious mix,” Campbell said via a prepared statement.

But the school was able to demonstrate that the University Project was kosher and didn’t pose a threat to Methodist-dom.

“What happened is the United Methodist Church is a huge denomination,” Pearce says. “They have a lot of people in the South who have more conservative views. When they got wind of what we were trying to do, they assumed we were going to have all the religions mixed up.”

The University Project was first conceived with the idea of allowing seminary students at Claremont to cross-enroll in programs that train future Muslim and Jewish faith leaders. Claremont was already training Jewish and Muslim chaplains, but did not have any rabbinical and imam certification programs.

On the school’s website currently proclaims, “The World is Changing. And So Is Claremont.” Claremont is indeed changing—but perhaps its most noteworthy achievement so far is convincing its theological brethren that they must change. That, or that change isn’t always bad.

“What we want is for everyone to communicate and learn how to work together,” Pearce says.


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