The 2012 General Conference (GC 2012) of The United Methodist Church (UMC) is only days away, and this quadrennial meeting is not lacking in importance as many issues relating to the future of our denomination will be decided by the delegates in attendance. Among those issues is to what extent the UMC will align its resources with its mission with regard to its official schools of theology. More specifically, GC 2012 will have to decide whether the UMC will maintain its current relationship with Claremont School of Theology, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology.
An interfaith seminary?
The mission of the United Methodist Church is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Unfortunately, Claremont has decided to abandon this mission in favor of an alternative mission of inter-religious training and credentialing. In 2010, Claremont School of Theology announced its decision to inaugurate what was then called The University Project, a program in which clerics in Islam and Judaism could be trained and credentialed in their respective religious traditions alongside Christian ministerial candidates.
As an official school of the UMC, the University Senate investigated Claremont's new endeavor but ultimately decided that Claremont could retain its status as an official denominational school of theology and engage in its inter-religious educational ambitions.
Since the initial announcement, the name of the project has been changed and is now known as Claremont Lincoln University (CLU). CLU is its own distinct institution formed through a partnership between Claremont School of Theology, The Academy for Jewish Religion, and The Islamic Center of Southern California. One is easily inclined to suspect that this initiative was transformed from a project housed by Claremont itself to a new university in which Claremont was a partner in order to appease critics opposed to the idea that a UMC seminary might undertake to train the leaders of non-Christian religions.
Dialogue does not equal training
Opposition to this move by Claremont has sometimes been portrayed as opposition to inter-religious dialogue. This is not accurate, though. Claremont has gone far beyond dialogue. I affirm the importance of inter-religious dialogue, but I also affirm that dialogue and conversation can happen without devoting UMC resources and seminary personnel to the training of the leaders of other religions. Claremont's insistence on training the clerics of various religions reveals their intention on moving beyond dialogue in a way that is antithetical to the mission of the UMC "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
Align resources with mission
Everyone knows that the UMC is in crisis, and GC 2012 will hopefully make some changes that will help all of us to focus on our mission. One of those changes should be to align our denominational educational resources with our mission. As an official school of theology, Claremont receives funding from the UMC, which means our resources are going to support an institution that has diverged from the mission of our Church. In this time of crisis, we must realign our resources to support institutions that share with us in our disciple-making mission, which means we must break relationships with those who do not.
Two Annual Conferences (Alabama/W. Florida and Mississippi) have petitioned (#20745) GC 2012 to rescind the status of Claremont School of Theology as an official UMC school. As the author of the petition submitted by the Alabama/W. Florida Conference, I can say that this legislation is not about hindering inter-religious dialogue. It is about stewardship of our missional resources. If we are to be faithful, we must align our resources with our mission, even if it means breaking with an institution with which we've had a long relationship. Such a break might be difficult, even painful, but it is necessary. In this time of crisis, our mission must be our chief priority.