Saturday, December 15, 2007


Religious seminaries are to most people a kind of “black box” with rather sexy overtones ranging from the benign Brother Cadfael sort of herbal seedbed to the frankly sexual terms of semen and insemination. Indoctrination for inseminators, one might guess, and be more right than they COULD guess unless they were former seminarians, which many of our national public figures are. Seminaries are nothing if not political.

For a liberal seminary like Meadville/Lombard, serving the Unitarian-Universalist community, admitting women into preparation for the ministry was both a necessity and a problem, not least because the seminary had shriveled to the point of people speaking of merger or foreclosure. Admitting women would both double the potential student clients and encourage generous donations from all those old widow ladies with portfolios -- or at least so it was hoped. How to prepare women (particularly older women), how to place them, how to support them in churches, was not the seminary’s problem. Even the specifics of preparation were controlled by the powerful UUA Fellowship Committee, the actual gatekeeper that was known to be ambivalent about Meadville. Anyway, Meadville’s long-standing symbiosis with the University of Chicago Divinity School was surely a bulwark against trivial transiences such as feminism. Some of us made it through by persistence, orneriness, and pure luck. Then the problem was what to do once ordained. Many had spent their fortunes at the seminary and were now facing the rest of their lives in low-pay marginal churches while the young men rose up the stairs to the major citadels of prosperity.

When I was told that Armida Alexander, who was a few years ahead of me at Meadville, was serving the Glacier UU Fellowship in Kalispell, I was delighted that she was close by. (By Montana standards -- 120 miles through a mountain pass.) Her class was the first to include many women. I called her up, we talked nonstop for a long time, and she simply got in her Subaru and come over to take me to lunch. She is in her early seventies (as compared with my late sixties), has had more serious eye trouble than I have, but is simply fearless. (Although still judicious.) The weather could hardly have been better in mid-December: dry road and sun. The goddesses were smiling.

We are very much on the same page theologically and both had our theses (both of them on ritual and the theology of worship) blocked by crypto-Christian bullies, which we evaded with Jungian strategy up to a point. That is, our theses are still unfinished but we were given M. Div’s to get us out from underfoot. WITH a thesis, our work would have entitled us to D.Mins, Doctor of Ministry degrees.

There are those who claim that Meadville’s troubles came with the early loss of one of their buildings in a tenure lawsuit. The building that was sold had been the communal kitchen and partial dormitory of the students in the first years. It’s at bed and table that many long discussions supply the roots of ministry, the rhizomes of professional relationships later. A minister needs someone trustworthy to call sometimes. A congregation may need another minister to come and put something bluntly to their minister. The denomination may need a friendly but frank and firm first-hand report. (Sorry about the alliteration -- I just read a review of “Gawain and the Green Knight!” Which might be quite relevant, actually.) If the self-governing principle that is supposed to be the heart of professional privilege is to work, then people have to know each other.

Armida and I have more than seminary as points of reference. We’ve both been part of the Pacific Northwest Minister’s Association at the time when its fiery international energy was almost the beginning of a separate organization, which might have been one of the forces in favor of dividing the Canadian and American denominations. We’ve both had relationships with Rockford, IL, Armida coming from it as a hometown and returning occasionally, and myself serving out my Clinical Pastoral Education there one long hot summer. And now we have the tie of Montana. This is a very rich relationship and yet we haven’t seen each other for a long time -- decades.

Armida exclaimed as she stepped in the door, “This looks exactly like your room at Meadville!” Of course. My wicker chair was there. The books were there. Very similar bookshelves. The same art. We lived in different buildings, old near-mansions next to or across the street from the seminary. Now the decision has been made to sell out the graceful old places and move over across the Midway green belt left from the Chicago World’s Fair into black-ghetto territory newly gentrified. The buildings will be modern, the students will be housed right there, and it will amount to a Baghdad-type encircled “green zone.” A student was recently shot to death near there. On the other hand, the massive Lorado Taft cement sculpture on the Midway has been restored. The modern University of Chicago Law School is on the south side of the Midway, but I don’t know whether that’s a plus or a minus. Depends on the context, I guess.

The marble stairs and wood-paneled walls of graceful old Meadville will become something else. The all-marble "hierophany" unisex bathroom, where Mircea Eliade used to warn of his presence with puffs on his aromatic pipe, will be gone. They’ve already torn the steeple off the faux-cathedral First Unitarian Church kitty-corner from the school. With such losses go many of the icons and settings of student life as Armida and I knew them. We are aware that a congregation should not necessarily cling to a building, architecture does not a community make, and yet we feel sharply the loss of continuity with roots. After all, the UUA itself refuses to give up its location at the top of Beacon Hill, it’s crumbly old red brick buildings, in spite of major infrastructure and demographic drawbacks. (It’s built on an ancient mountain of garbage and the neighborhood goes through many changes.)

So Armida and I could talk in shorthand and we had a long list of people to ask about though neither of us is on any good gossip pipeline. This is either an advantage or disadvantage of being in Montana. I’ve been technically “out of ministry” since 1988 when I left Saskatoon, though I did pulpit supply until 1999 when I came back to Valier. From 1982-85 I rode circuit among the Montana UU groups, but Glacier declined to participate.

Armida has been doing “interims” which means staying only a year or so while a congregation finds a new minister. It requires a good deal of tact, almost at a therapeutic level, as well as adaptability about living arrangements. (Glacier created an apartment right in their building for her.) The Glacier placement is part-time, year-to-year depending upon the economy and Armida’s health, but with huge potential rewards for both sides, not least because Armida has a long-standing interest in Native Americans. My usual resistance to religious liberals having ANYTHING to do with Native Americans is dropped for Armida. She will not indulge in foolish little oppressions of patronization and romanticism.

This day of talk was for me a magnificent and much-needed gift (though I hate to admit being anything less than self-sufficient!) Esp. in this season of worry while I wait for the bio of Bob to come out. But an on-going relationship over the next year or so will do us both good, I think. Armida is a fine poet but says she’s stopped writing. Maybe we can see about that... We’re like old-wood rosebushes that have not quit blooming yet, though the gardeners are tending other plants.

No comments: