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Claremont seminary reaches beyond Christianity

Calling multi-faith expansion the next step, the school will offer training for Muslims and Jews in a program that strains its historic ties to the Methodist Church.

June 09, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Claremont President Jerry Campbell says: "We want our future religious leaders to understand the landscape in which they will be leading."
Claremont President Jerry Campbell says: "We want our future religious… (Claremont School of Theology )

In a bow to the growing diversity of America's religious landscape, the Claremont School of Theology, a Christian institution with long ties to the Methodist Church, will add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall, to become, in a sense, the first truly multi-faith American seminary.

The transition, which is being formally announced Wednesday, upends centuries of tradition in which seminaries have hewn not just to single faiths but often to single denominations within those faiths. Eventually, Claremont hopes to add clerical programs for Buddhists and Hindus.

Although there are other theological institutions that accept students of multiple faiths, or have partnerships with institutions of other religions, Claremont is believed to be the first accredited institution that will train students of multiple faiths for careers as clerics. The 275-student seminary offers master's and doctoral degrees.

"It's really kind of a creative, bold move," said David Roozen, director of the Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "It kind of fits, to some extent, California.... I think there will be a lot of us who will be watching that experiment."

Claremont's administration sees the multi-faith expansion as the wave of the future in American theological training. But it is straining relations between the school and more conservative elements of the United Methodist Church, which this year was expected to provide about 8% of Claremont's $10-million budget. The church suspended its support for the school earlier this year pending an investigation.

Marianne E. Inman, president of the church's University Senate, which oversees Methodist seminaries, declined to comment on Claremont's plans, referring a reporter to a January statement in which she took the school to task for failing to consult with the church body on budget matters and on "a substantial reorientation of the institution's mission."

Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist who is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based ecumenical organization, was more outspoken in his criticism.

"Claremont seems to be moving away from its responsibility to the United Methodist Church," Tooley said. "It almost seems that they're trying to fulfill the stereotype that many in the church have of liberal Methodism on the West Coast."

Claremont President Jerry Campbell said he is optimistic that the University Senate will relent and restore funding. Partly to meet those concerns, the school is establishing the Muslim and Jewish programs as separate entities under the larger umbrella of what is being called the University Project. Regardless of the Methodist decision, he said, he intends to launch the new programs this fall, relying on a $10-million pledge from philanthropists. A decision from the church is expected later this month.

"We want our future religious leaders to understand the landscape in which they will be leading," Campbell said in remarks prepared for Wednesday's announcement. "We want them to be able to see 'the other' as neighbor, friend and co-worker. We want to be able to facilitate love among our different traditions in order that we can begin to solve the big problems."

In making the announcement, Campbell identified the Muslim and Jewish organizations that will partner with Claremont to create the programs: The Islamic Center of Southern California, a well-established mosque in Koreatown, will help oversee the Muslim curriculum, and the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, a 10-year-old, nondenominational rabbinical school in Westwood, will be the Jewish partner.

The Muslim curriculum is expected to become one of the first programs in the United States to train imams, the clerics who lead Islamic prayer. Zaytuna, an Islamic college in Berkeley that is scheduled to open this fall, also plans to begin clerical training.

Previously, most imams at U.S. mosques have either emigrated from predominantly Muslim countries or have been sent from the United States to train in those countries. Scholars and some Islamic leaders said there has been a growing need for training imams that will reflect the particularities of Islamic society in this country, where there is a movement toward a more progressive approach to Islam, with a greater emphasis on a pastoral role by the imam.

"Our community is growing," said Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body that issues interpretations and answers questions about Islamic law. "And many people are realizing that we need to have locally trained, homegrown imams."

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