Another Claremont PR piece (updated)

You may recall a recent post by Bobby Ross Jr., about a press release that the Associated Press published about the Claremont School of Theology's plan to start providing theological education for Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis, as well as clergy for United Methodist and other liberal mainline Protestant congregations. It seems that the support for the effort was universal, at least among those contacted by the newspaper. There were critics, you know, but they were not the kind of people who needed to be quoted -- granted a platform, in other words -- in a major newspaper. As Bible-Belt Bobby put it:

The basic gist: We live in a pluralistic world where all religions are the same, and everybody except for the usual vague people referred to as the "more conservative elements" recognizes that.

You can just hear the cheers, can't you? Rah-rah-rah!

Well, I noticed the other day that the opposition to the plan had taken on a somewhat more material form and, thus, Claremont leaders were prodded to tweak their interfaith offerings. Still, a recent Los Angeles Times update offered the same kind of PR tone. Here's how that piece opens:

The United Methodist Church has lifted sanctions against the Claremont School of Theology, which risked breaking its longstanding ties with the church when it announced plans earlier this year to begin training Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis in addition to Christian pastors.

In a terse statement ... the United Methodist University Senate announced that it had rescinded a public warning and restored funding to the school, which will remain affiliated with the church. The senate oversees all Methodist-affiliated seminaries.

Claremont President Jerry Campbell said the change of heart came after the school managed to allay fears "that we were turning a United Methodist-related seminary into something very different."

The church had sanctioned the school in January after expressing concerns about both its failure to submit a budget and its plans for a "substantial reorientation" of the school's mission. To satisfy the church, Claremont altered its original plans to train Christian, Muslim and Jewish students in one college, instead creating a new university with separate graduate schools for Muslim and Jewish students. Only the existing Christian school will receive Methodist funds. Claremont hopes to eventually add programs for Buddhists and Hindus.

In other words, Claremont will provide the academic infrastructure for an institution that, on the surface at least, will be a new creation. Will this change the heart of this new project? Of course not. All of this is still compatible with the essentially Universalist approach that the seminary has offered in the past.

If there is a story here, it has to do with the approach to Islam that will taught. Islam is an evangelistic faith that claims to teach exclusive truths that clash with other faiths. Are there Muslim academics who are willing to embrace the progressive Claremont approach? Will there be genuine theological diversity in these programs and, thus, any real tensions? There are good news threads to follow.

I was curious about one other angle that is not explored in this Times piece. Might the seminary need students and, thus, need a new source of income in an era in which many liberal mainline institutions are facing severe cutbacks? It required only a few clicks of a mouse for me to find the following information in a publication about trends in theological education:

On a late afternoon in July 2006, Jerry Campbell, newly arrived president of Claremont School of Theology (CST), was alone in his office. He may even have been alone in the building -- one of an ensemble of stark, white modernist structures designed by Edward Durell Stone that snuggle against the base of Southern California's San Gabriel Mountains. Everyone had gone for the day, leaving the new chief in solitude to ponder how to extricate the school from a crisis.

Claremont had run up major deficits for three years, financing them by deep draws on its endowment. Enrollment was falling precipitously. Key faculty members were leaving. The school's two accrediting agencies had placed them on probation. And on Campbell's desk was a new letter from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges announcing that CST's regional accreditation would be terminated effective August 10 unless he asked for a review of the decision. The letter stated that Claremont's administration had demonstrated an inability to provide sound financial management. Moreover, it said, "the administration did not engage in honest and open communication with the accreditor" and thus lacked "institutional integrity."

Wow! That sounds like some pretty newsworthy stuff! Yes, there appears to be a back story to this burst of interfaith academic innovation and, I would imagine, fund raising.

With a little more digging, I found an older and more fact-driven Los Angeles Times piece that mentions that this new approach is already pulling in some new donations and one of them is rather large. Thus, President Campbell mentions this:

Regardless of the Methodist decision, he said, he intends to launch the new programs this fall, relying on a $10-million pledge from philanthropists.

I would be interesting to know if that grant is domestic money whether it came from overseas and, in particular, from the kinds of Saudi Arabian sources that have backed other educational efforts in the West. I have not been able to find evidence of a press release, yet, about the details of that grant.

UPDATE: A reader found the link. The $10 million pledge is from a Claremont trustee in Arizona.

Photo: From the "In Trust" weblog.

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