Plans for interfaith seminary shelved

April 28, 2011

(RNS) When leaders of the nation's oldest seminary and a Unitarian
Universalist theological school began to dream of building a new
partnership, they planned to create a futuristic model of religious
higher education.

But after more than a year of discussions, Andover Newton
Theological School outside Boston and Meadville Lombard Theological
School in Chicago have canceled plans to jointly create a multifaith
institution.

Although the schools' different religious identities were a key
aspect of the negotiations, presidents of both schools said other
matters -- from finances to accreditation issues -- prompted a halt to
their talks.

"We found ourselves in a stronger financial position in a
stand-alone model than we would have been in the cooperative venture,
and that meant that we had to look really hard at our own fiduciary
responsibility to our own seminary," said the Rev. Lee Barker, president
of the Chicago school.

The Unitarian Universalist seminary, which is transitioning to a
nonresidential school, has about 130 students, most of whom only visit
Chicago for occasional intensive classes.

Andover Newton, which is based in Newton Centre, Mass., has about
300 students and is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA
and the United Church of Christ.

Interfaith relations are "not impossible to create," Barker said,
but with congregations tending to give less financial support to
seminaries, it wasn't the right time for such a partnership.

"There was a great deal of enthusiasm" about the academic aspects of
the proposal, said the Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton.
"It was the governance and the consequences of the governance on things
like finances ... that really started to take it apart."

As of 2012, the nearby Hebrew College will be housed on Andover
Newton's campus. The two Massachusetts schools have been collaborating
for a decade and had "more lead time" for a closer affiliation, Carter
said.

Barker and Carter hope the multifaith model they envisioned may
still take root someday, even if it is not created by their two schools.
Other schools expressed interest in the proposed "theological
university" but did not enter formal discussions.

"We're tied to the real world of institutions and constituencies and
fiduciary responsibility," Barker said, "but in no way in my mind does
that undermine the vision of what we were trying to do."

The two schools still plan to offer joint programs for their
doctorate of ministry students, including a preaching class in June at
Andover Newton.