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New Interreligious Theological University To Form in Massachusetts

BOSTON — Two theological schools, including the nation’s oldest Christian graduate seminary, announced Tuesday that they’re uniting to form a university to educate people of all religions.

Andover Newton Theological School, founded outside Boston in 1807, and the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago said they’ll establish an “interreligious theological university” by next year.

The schools will keep their specific faith identities as separate institutions operating under the broad umbrella of the new university, said Andover Newton president Nick Carter. The difference is that students in each school will have opportunities to take classes together and interact with students from other schools that are expected to join the university.

That experience is crucial in working in a multi-faith world, where “interfaith border-crossing skills” are needed, Carter said.

“You can’t open the paper today and not find a story that is grounded in religious difference,” Carter said. “The real question that it begs is, ‘So where do you turn for hope? … Where are people learning how to be true to their own faith but have skills that enable them to positively and constructively engage others?’”

The new university doesn’t yet have a name and its governing structure is being devised. Meadville Lombard is selling its four-building campus in Chicago, so the new school will be based at the Andover Newton campus in Newton.

Meadville Lombard will keep a presence in Chicago for students who take classes from home but must travel to the city periodically as part of their coursework.

So far, only Andover Newton and Meadville Lombard are part of the new university, but Carter said they’re actively looking for other schools.

Various theological schools have incorporated other religions, including California’s Claremont School of Theology, a Methodist seminary that later this year will begin cross-training future Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.

Such moves have coincided with tough times for theological schools, which have been battered by the economic downturn. Last year, the Association of Theological Schools, which represents graduate schools in North America, reported that at least 80 members have seen their endowments drop by 20 percent or more.

The Rev. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, which has about 125 students, said the new university will not only expand the educational opportunities for his students but also “gives us an opportunity to achieve financial stability.”

Carter said strengthening finances was “part of the formula”’ in the move.

“Is it the driving factor? If we didn’t feel like we had an exciting vision to offer to the world, we would not do it,” he said. “We’re not in the business to make money.”

Rabbi Justice Baird of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, who has studied interfaith offerings of theological schools, said questions remain about training students of different religions in the same place.

Mixing faiths can make a theological mush if schools don’t strike a balance between strongly instilling the richness of their particular faith, while at the same time infusing an openness to other religions students will encounter, he said.

“I think it’s a risk,” Baird said.

Carter said his school’s joint courses with neighboring Hebrew College showed that, when students tried to paper over their differences, learning suffered.

“That’s not what’s happening here,” Carter said. “It’s not a watering down. In fact, it’s a clarifying of a distinct identity.”

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