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Theological schools’ partnership could reshape training

Program balances diversity, unity

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / June 24, 2010

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Leaders of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, which will become partners in a yet-to-be-named interreligious institution next summer, say the new school has the potential to revolutionize the training of clergy by offering a more sustainable financial model that fits a more religiously diverse society.

The schools will retain their individual names and faith identities — Andover Newton, the oldest graduate seminary in the United States, is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA, and Meadville Lombard is one of two Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the country.

But as of next summer, when the new institution opens on the Newton Centre campus, they will share a corporate structure, and students will interact socially and academically. The sale of Meadville Lombard’s four-building Hyde Park campus will also help fund a permanent endowment.

“I believe it really is the answer to a challenge that has been stalking theological schools for the last several decades,’’ said the Rev. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will become a senior executive in the new institution. “The challenge being how to best prepare students for the 21st century, and to do so in a way that is affordable and financially viable.’’

The Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton, will lead the new entity, which he said would continue to seek additional institutional partners. Carter said the university-style model fits a world in which “almost all of the assumptions on which theological education has been based for the last 200 years have been swept away.’’

Faith groups are less homogenous, he said, and American society as a whole is more religiously diverse.

The new institution, Carter said, will provide theological students with a thorough foundation in their own faith and challenge them to learn and grow in a diverse religious community.

“What we need now, more than anything, is a laboratory for people to be true to their faith in the midst of . . . a community of other faiths,’’ he said.

Both schools had been looking for a partnership for some time. Andover Newton had been particularly active in seeking out interfaith relationships. Hebrew College bought eight acres from Andover Newton a decade ago, and the two institutions cooperate on many levels, offering classes co-taught by faculty from both institutions and holding joint faculty and trustee meetings.

Larry Ladd, president of the board of trustees of Meadville Lombard and a resident of Boston, said the Chicago school’s leaders decided to seek a partner because they recognized that the seminary was not as financially strong as it should be — its endowment was hurt by the recession, and its campus was expensive to maintain. The trustees evaluated potential partnerships with two other “unapologetically progressive’’ theological institutions before choosing Andover Newton, he said.

“What is attractive about a ‘university’ like this is that every faith is strengthened in dialogue and in tension with other faiths,’’ he said. “Having many faiths represented . . . is an extraordinary pedagogical advantage for our students and faculty.’’

Ladd said a few of the faculty in Chicago would probably move to Massachusetts; others would remain in Chicago, which will continue to serve as the center for Meadville Lombard’s distance learning program, “TouchPoint,’’ which enrolls the vast majority of the school’s 125 or so students. Students already enrolled in Meadville Lombard’s full-time campus-based program will be allowed to complete their work in Chicago.

Barker said the school’s leaders are devising plans for its library, which includes the papers of some of the most prominent Unitarian Universalist leaders, including William Ellery Channing.

He said it would be preserved and made more accessible to people around the country.

Rabbi Justus Baird, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, said the challenge for institutions like the one being formed in Newton Centre is to “give a future religious leader a deep knowledge, experience, and passion for his or her own faith tradition, and at the same time prepare that religious leader to work across lines of faith in effective ways.’’

The Rev. Dudley C. Rose, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, which in recent years has revamped its curriculum to prepare students for leadership roles in a wide array of faith traditions, said exposure to a broader spectrum of religions does not necessarily lead to a blurring of beliefs or religious identity.

He said students often find themselves working harder to clarify their own thinking in an environment that forces them to explain and define themselves.

“We find many of our students leave here more in touch with their traditions because they’ve had to enter into it much more deeply than they would have if they had been surrounded by like-minded people,’’ he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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