Good Friday seems a fine time to write about the death of a seminary. Some will say it’s going to be resurrected. Maybe. It’s uncertain about its Christian elements. Earlier they were saying it would be transformed into a multi-religion education center that even included Islam -- pretty daring -- riding on the resources and creds of Andover-Newton. That’s fallen apart now. A nearby Hebrew school will join Andover. Meadville will not.
From the beginning the seminary was bits and scraps. Meadville was originally in the town of that name in Pennsylvania, which sort of grew out of the library of a local fellow who was sickly but bookish. Lombard was Carl Sandburg’s Alma Mater and when it was disassembled for lack of money, the Ryder School of Theology, which had previously been taken into Lombard, was disgorged and carried over to the new seminary. This transaction brought along a license for teaching the proper shoeing of horses. In Montana we understand the importance of this. I should have tried getting a sermon out of it. Maybe I will yet.
At the time these rural seminaries were active, it was understood that young men were best educated for the ministry in “seed beds” that were in quiet places fit for study. Unitarians want “learned ministers” (or they did then) like Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. The contrast was the “inspired minister,” who had a vision and simply grabbed his Bible, like the Methodists, Baptists and Pentacostals. “Learned ministers” typically came from Harvard and Yale where theology was taught alongside medicine and law, true professions. At the other end of the spectrum were local Bible schools. In the case of the Unitarians, Starr King in Berkeley might be considered “inspired” -- very freeform, sort of “pagan,” even improvised.
Meadville/Lombard was part of a new movement to cluster seminaries around major universities that had “schools” dedicated to the study of religion, in this case the University of Chicago Divinity School. But M/L had a special relationship. One of the major endowments of the Divinity School is specifically for the preparation of ministers, but the kind of study of religion taught there produced professors. An arrangement provided a blended curriculum: for the first year at M/L the student took two Div School courses per quarter, plus one M/L class. At the end of the year, if one had passed the Div School course exams, six of them, plus an exam in written French, German -- Italian? I don’t remember -- that qualified the student for an MA in Religious Studies. Some people could not pass these exams. A few people did so well that they moved their focus over to the Div School. A VERY few people (no UU’s that I knew) walked into the Div School, challenged the exams, passed, and went directly to the Ph.D. program.
We had free access to any other part of the U of Chicago. I was a little stumped to find there was no anthropology program for Plains Indians, but then fruitfully invaded the classes of Richard Stern, who taught writing, narrative and modernity. I fell madly in love with Stephen Toulmin’s classes but couldn’t understand any of it and had to confess and withdraw. Don Browning’s Pastoral Care class was the single most useful course for ministry that I took.
There were two raging controversies: one was people who wanted to duck out on the the arduous “learned” stuff, like a language. A modern language is conventional for a scholar’s MA and the Lutherans were learning Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, but the free spirits among us fought and cheated and balked until finally the requirement was somehow dropped. That was the beginning of the end, to my mind. Not unrelated to the decline of rigorous education in general.
The other was people who hated the Unitarian Universalist denominational and ministry focus, even though most of us were being paid for by the UUA and funds designated for ministerial education. But these people felt they might or might not be “called” and should be justified as students by just learning the course material. It’s easy to see how corrosive this could be, but the class sizes had dwindled down to four, so any applicant who looked the least bit likely was admitted. One was an arsonist. Never proven.
The dark side of this was that the school kept the students going along until they had wrung as much tuition out of them as they could -- then they would be called in for a meeting and told they were not good minister material and would not be awarded a degree, even though the denomination’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee had the final word about who would be recommended for pulpits. Sometimes the judgment was right and sometimes it was wrong, but it tended to be based on three factors: success at Clinical Pastoral Education where the pressure was really on and the rubber hit the road; success at internship, a year on the staff of a big church somewhere; and whether or not the student got along with the faculty. The last few years were focused on the production of a “systematic” which is one’s personal theological justification, and a thesis. I read dozens of them. (They were bound and shelved in the library.) They varied wildly. No judgment standard could truly be objective, especially once the Christian paradigm was left behind.
Most of the trouble at M/L came down to two things: money and faculty. There was never enough money in spite of the facade of stone and paneling. And the faculty was fatally forked in the beginning by the hiring of two major UU figures, one to be the president and the other to be a professor. They were soon locked into competition. Ministers tend to be grandiose narcissists in the first place. UU’s even in the pews often share that syndrome. There can be no appeal to humility before a loving God, can there? So the president fired the professor, who had tenure and sued, taking the best of the peripheral buildings, a brick monster on the corner across from the actual school that contained the communal dining room, the community glue. The rest of the faculty -- junior-level, stunned, and expecting to be French-style people of the workers with reversed collars on blue workshirts -- never quite recovered.
So this year M/L has resigned itself to selling off its buildings (to the U of Chicago which is booming) and finding some new form. For a while it appeared that a deal could be made with Andover-Newton but that has fallen through now. There’s enough money to pay rent somewhere in Chicago and keep some of the faculty -- the big shots -- but basically Meadville/Lombard is now a correspondence seminary (they call them “low-residence) and one can indeed get a mail-order diploma from them.
In the meantime, the denomination has changed. I’m not quite sure how radically because of having left in 1988, but my impression is that there is not much use for “learned ministers.” Now they tend to be warm counselors and “cute” preachers with “people skills.” Often ministry is their second career, so they are older. It is a female sort of job now, totally detached from the University of Chicago Divinity School, that source of gravitas and status.
I'll forever be grateful for my access to the University of Chicago. And I am aware that while I was there ('78-'82) the Jesuit equivalent seminary closed. That was before scandal broke their bank. I am not "insitutional," and maybe that's a good thing.