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A Different Mission : Religion: The new president of the School of Theology in Claremont sees an opportunity to train people who will have a positive impact on the church's role in society.

September 30, 1990|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLAREMONT — In his 12 years as a congressman from Philadelphia, Robert W. Edgar had plenty of time to scrutinize the political process. He came away convinced of one basic truth.

"Congress and senators are followers, not trend-setters," says the 47-year-old United Methodist minister, who left the House after the 1986 session. "Trends come from the bottom up . . . from a groundswell."

It was this belief in grass-roots power that led Edgar to abandon the East Coast political world this summer to take over as president of the School of Theology at Claremont.

"We have an opportunity here to train people who want to make a difference on planet Earth," says Edgar, leaning forward in his study. "These people . . . will make a positive impact on the revitalization of the church's role in society."

A pastor since age 19, Edgar's religious convictions are idealist and pragmatic, progressive and conciliatory. His ability to define God's work in broad strokes has allowed him to feel equally at home on Capitol Hill and before his United Methodist congregation in Claremont. Different pulpits, that's all.

In a recent address to students that was more syncopated hymn than speech, Edgar quoted from minds both theological and secular: Martin Luther King Jr. on race relations, Dwight D. Eisenhower on the need to balance the arms race with the human race, theologians John Cobb and David Griffin on divine life, Abraham Lincoln on struggling for a just cause.

But Edgar also likened himself to a Drano-wielding plumber called on to unclog the School of Theology.

"We have clogged arteries of communication, we have stopped-up hurt feelings that must be heard, we have vocal complaints, unanswered questions and widespread suspicions that would clog even the best of institutions. All of us must spend the next few years in an honest exploration of our individual and corporate need for reconciliation," he said.

Administrators at the School of Theology have high hopes that Edgar's vision will help surmount the theological infighting, financial scandals and shifting demographics with which the school has grappled in recent years.

"We were very un-Christian to each other for a long time; basically we were poking each other in the eye," Edgar says of imbroglios that beset the School of Theology before his arrival in July. "I want ego disarmament on campus. I want to be known as the reconciler, the peacemaker."

The new president is candid about the school's past troubles. In the last three years, he says, two financial managers for the college embezzled a total of about $285,000.

After the first embezzlement of $15,000 was discovered, the board of trustees voted unanimously to have its treasurer, John Kirkman, take over as business manager and set things straight, Edgar said. Instead, Kirkman was convicted last May of embezzling $270,000, Edgar said. The School of Theology is recovering the money from Kirkman, he adds.

Edgar also inherited a long-running campus feud of uncertain origin between the School of Theology and the Disciples of Christ, another mainline Protestant denomination that maintains an office on campus and formerly owned several college buildings.

The new president has extended the olive branch and both sides say they are trying to put past misunderstandings behind them.

"There's a new openness on the part of the president," says Don Reisinger, president of the Disciples Seminary Foundation. "He brings a freshness to the School of Theology and looks to the future and not to the past."

The school, whose roots at USC date to the last century, was established as an independent college in Claremont in 1958. Today, many of its faculty hold joint appointments at the Claremont Graduate School and the School of Theology serves as the de facto religion department for the Claremont Graduate School, Edgar says.

Although the college is owned by the United Methodist Church and 47% of its students are Methodist, 25 other Protestant denominations from 18 countries are also represented on campus. About 47% of the student body is nonwhite, laced with a large number of Korean and Chinese theologians, which has led to some cultural clashes, Edgar says.

Some classes are taught in Korean and Chinese. More delicate negotiations were necessary recently when some of the male Korean students initially refused to take instruction from female professors.

But where some see unruly students, Edgar sees soldiers on the front lines of mainline Protestantism.

"As we send each of these students back to their countries, they're going to be powerful forces," he says.

Edgar calls the liberal church "a sleeping giant" and says it's unfortunate that the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist Christians have given the impression that they are the sole purveyors of religious activity today.

Although Edgar believes in the separation of church and state, he jokes that "as long as there are final exams there will be prayer in school."

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