CHICAGO – A Chicago seminary plans to pioneer a new way to train clergy in the context of many faiths other than their own.

Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Hyde Park, Ill., hopes to join Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant institutions to train clergy together, including offering some shared courses where there is common ground. Andover Newton Theological School, a United Church of Christ seminary in the Boston area, is the only partner so far.

Leaders say the interreligious approach heralds the future of theological education and could save financially strapped seminaries nationwide.

“We live in an era when religious tribalism affects us every day,” said the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. “We need to learn to appreciate the traditions out of which we come and to live in an atmosphere of acceptance that goes way beyond tolerance. A seminary like this can help lead the way.”

Claremont School of Theology, a historically Methodist seminary in California, announced last month that it would add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall. Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton estimate it will take about a year to roll out its multifaith vision.

Although there are other seminaries that accept students of multiple faiths — Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park offers a master’s in theology with a concentration on interfaith dialogue — the new model is part of an effort to train students who will go on to serve as clergy of their own religious communities in the context of a diverse religious landscape.


It also demonstrates a growing awareness of the role religious differences play in global diplomacy.

“The world is really shrinking and fracturing around religion,” said the Rev. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will be a senior executive of the new “theological university.”

The multifaith model presents uncharted territory for denominations, which historically have counted on seminaries to ground students in their particular religious traditions.

For American Muslims who have no institutions in the U.S. to train imams, the model opens a potential pathway for second-generation Muslims who don’t want to travel overseas for training but want to lead congregations.

“As long as it’s a cooperation with an Islamic institution, I think it would be very good,” said Mohamad Nasir, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, whose organization is developing guidelines and educational recommendations for aspiring imams in the Chicago area. “We do live in a multifaith society. Our religious leaders have to be able to relate and communicate with other faiths.”


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