So there it was in my email, the official announcement:
“NEWTON CENTRE, Mass. -- Two leading seminaries have agreed in principle to form a new interreligious university-style theological institution that seeks to become an innovative center for educating religious leaders for service in a pluralistic world.
“The as-yet unnamed institution will be established during the next year by Andover Newton Theological School of Newton Centre, Mass., and Meadville Lombard Theological School of Chicago. Other seminaries will be sought as partners in a design that allows participating schools to keep their historic names and sustain distinct faith traditions while gaining significant financial and administrative advantage through a single corporate infrastructure.”
Who do they think they’re fooling? The same people who were fooled when the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations merged in Portland in 1961? That was the end of the Universalists in spite of the new name: Unitarian Universalist Association. This is the end of Meadville/Lombard. Of course, Meadville/Lombard has that slash in the middle because it was the result of a merger between Meadville Theological School and the Ryder School of Religion of Lombard College (Carl Sandburg’s alma mater), which snuffed both of them. Meadville had been in Pennsylvania, beginning when a young man in ill health who owned a library appropriate for the education of religious leaders was set up to teach. The Ryder School of Religion had been acquired by Lombard College which was then acquired by Meadville/Lombard. The merger meant that the new seminary acquired an Illinois license to teach horseshoeing.
The rest of the news release is horse patootie and double-talk, which is what some people think religion is about anyway. When people start “valuing distinctions and serving all religions,” the real message is that the unity is lost. The consensus has broken.
“The Rev. Dr. Lee C. Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will become a senior executive in the new entity, said, "This new interreligious 'theological university' is designed to serve seminarians of all religions, and seeks to strengthen their faiths and identities - not water them down. It is in valuing each other's distinctions that we find the ground for the greatest learning. We hope other like-minded seminaries will join us because they share our mission to train leaders who are prepared to serve in a religiously diverse world and want to do so in a model that can offer a financially sound footing."
“Meadville Lombard is in the process of selling its four-building campus in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The sale will liquidate the school's real estate assets and terminate needs for ongoing maintenance, freeing up assets for better use in the educational mission of the new school.” This means paying the salaries of the professors. Ironically, the potential entering class was 26 or so. Will there be more or fewer students when they realize they are now attending a mail order school?
Three of the buildings on the “campus” are simply former homes, divvied into rooms and offices. The actual school building, the one with the library in it, the one with the big reception room and a few small classrooms and the faculty offices, is the real dream now gone. When one is admitted into the ministry by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which comes from the denomination rather than any seminary, one preaches a demonstration sermon. Mine was about that building and talked about the spring that’s under the granite and marble and wood paneling. It’s pretty humble, just a little trickle of water running through the basement but a nice symbol of renewal. The architects had the choice of either trying to suppress it or letting it run through openly and took the latter choice. Otherwise, the constant pressure and erosion could undermine the building. I think the architect was wiser than the school it housed.
In 1975 I attended the Pacific Northwest UU Leadership School which was a week-long marathon of classes and experiences, a camp up at Fort Worden on the Washington state coast. I was thunderstruck. Now they tell me that the Leadership Schools are old-fashioned, no longer useful.
In 1978 I was admitted to Meadville/Lombard Theological School. I never applied to Starr-King School of Religion in Berkeley or Harvard. Starr-King (irreverently called Tuna U.) was wildly creative, guided by one towering personality, always on the brink of collapse -- one end of the Unitarian spectrum. Harvard, the other end, totally intimidated me. But my undergrad work was at Northwestern University on the north side of Chicago, so going to grad school on the south side seemed okay. My Graduate Record Exam scores would not quite have gotten me into the University of Chicago, but they were actually not too shabby and I would be able to attend the classes as a student of M/L. That was MY dirty little secret: I was as interested in U of C as M/L.
In 1980 I received my MA in Religious Studies from U of Chicago. In those days one earned the degree within the M/L program and the biggest obstacle was learning French. I did pass the written French exam. My entering class was six people. One transferred to Union in NYC at the end of the first quarter. One never really intended to be a minister and now sells wine for a living. I left the ministry in 1988 so as to return to Browning, Montana, where I served as the Methodist minister for a year. Another has served as a Baptist minister. One is the head of the flagship UU church in Bellevue, Washington. In the class after mine, there were four people. One set the Meadville library on fire and left under a cloud of smoke. In the next few years the U of Chicago MA became optional. Most U of Chicago Divinity School students become Ph.D. teachers of religion rather than parish ministers. They are a formidable crowd, but M/L ministers these days mostly just want to be best friends.
My M/L degree came in the mail in 1984 after I picked up one last course in the Old Testament, which I took from Marvin Shaw at Montana State University in Bozeman while circuit-riding between 1982 and 1985. None of this was anything I would have expected. I thought that I was entering upon a stable, revered, learned ministry, not a constant state of fund-raising, a paranoid behind-closed doors scrambling for power, much re-framing and compensatory arrangements. I thought I would earn a D. Min. rather than the M.Div. I settled for. I didn’t know that in spite of all the scholarships and subsidies, I would emerge with one of the first debts: $12,000 -- considered exorbitant in those days -- and never make much more than that in any year of ministry. (I finally paid off the last of that loan with part of my mother’s estate in 1999.)
Even one of the bright stars of the class after me, a preaching prodigy who resuscitated an ancient church and made it a hugely successful institution, has now backed off to teaching in a small college. Another is busy trying to become an oracle in the atheism movement.
All is whirl. The center did not hold. In the end, it really doesn’t matter very much anyway. Springs dry up but the horses still get shod somehow. I’m sorry that Valier has just banned horses except for parades.