SEMINARIES AND THE
By Dr. Riley B. Case
It is almost certain that in the coming months we will have two separate expressions of what is today United Methodism. There will be a Global Methodist Church consisting of conferences and/or churches who wish to start afresh with a denomination faithful to the doctrines and discipline of historic Methodism, and a repurposed United Methodist Church which will continue most of the present institutional relationships and seek to minister with some progressive revisions, such as removing all negative language in regard to LGBTQIA matters. One further possibility would be the organization of a third denomination even more progressive than the centrist-progressive group.
The Confessing Movement, as well as all the evangelical renewal groups, is getting further questions as to what we might expect with the two groups. The topic in this article has to do with clergy, ministerial preparation, and seminaries.
One big issue for any of the future expressions of Methodism will be that of ministerial training and the seminaries. It needs to be said up-front that our seminaries are one of the reasons the church is facing amicable separation. It is the basic contention of evangelicals that almost all official United Methodist seminaries have not been inclusive of the evangelical perspective for over 100 years. And it can be argued that seminaries were not all that helpful even before that. At the 1784 launching of the Methodist Episcopal Church, it was stated (1784 Discipline): “If you can do but one let your studies alone. We would throw by all the libraries of the world rather than be guilty of the loss of one soul.”
In 1832 Congregational seminaries enrolled 234 students, Presbyterian seminaries 257, Episcopalians 47, Baptists 107 and the Methodists none. The first Methodist seminary was founded in 1847. By 1859 the other seminaries enrolled over 1,200 students to the Methodists 51. Yet Methodists claimed the allegiance of one-third of the entire church population.
Early Methodists in America were not numbered among the respectable and educated classes of society. But their message moved the poor and the common people. What is known as the Second Great Awakening in America (1800 – 1850) was basically a Methodist revival. Even during the revival, converted Methodists were becoming responsible citizens and moving into the middle class. They were also realizing the importance of education and an educated clergy. However, with an educated clergy came the temptation to elitism.
By the 1890s persons like Borden Parker Bowne of Boston could talk about the importance of “scholarly investigators” to do the church’s intellectual work to keep “spiritual life from losing its way in swamps of ignorance and superstition.” These investigators were needed to “adjust religious thought to the ever-advancing thought of cultivated intelligence so as to remove endless misunderstanding.” This kind of thinking was labeled modernism. By 1920, when ordinary Methodism was still characterized by gospel songs and revivals, the seminaries had already committed to modernism. This was reported by O. E. Brown in an article in Methodist Quarterly Review in July 1925 entitled “Modernism: A Calm Survey.” Brown quoted a poll administered by Ministers’ Monthly that surveyed the theological orientation of 91 seminaries in America. Forty of the 91 identified themselves as “modernist,” including nine that were Methodist, M.E, M.E. South, or Methodist Protestant more than any other denominational group. The modernist take-over of what today is called the “mainline” churches was so complete that the Christian Century in 1926 carried an editorial saying the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was over and fundamentalism had lost.
In a companion article in the same 1925 issue of the Quarterly Review, D.G. Thompson, in an article “Theological Seminaries: An Evaluation,” said that while Methodist seminaries were criticized by conservatives for not maintaining the integrity of the faith, they were criticized by liberals for being too practical and too dogmatic and not truly academic. No wonder modernism was accused of elitism. I appreciated my education in a Methodism seminary, but it was preparing me for a different world from the world of the churches I was serving. When Billy Graham came to Chicago for a crusade, some of us asked our seminary president if we might invite Billy Graham to the seminary for conversations. The answer was, “No, because we do not want to be identified with that kind of religion.”
All the same, Methodism was thriving during the 1950s. By the 1960s the liberal seminaries were moving more and more to the left in politics, culture, and theology. This meant liberation theology, death-of-God philosophy, existentialism, anti-sexism, anti-racism, and anti-capitalist ideology. It also meant less enrollment. Union Theological Seminary in New York lost 227 students in four years (see Time magazine, Oct. 9, 1972) and the University of Chicago Divinity School 200 students. Garrett Biblical Institute, which once had the distinction of being the largest of the Methodist seminaries, declined from 401 students in 1961 to 216 in 1968.
Out of financial concerns the 1968 General Conference established the Ministerial Education Fund, an apportionment that, in addition to allowing annual conferences to provide scholarships, basically was a grant to the United Methodist seminaries to keep them afloat. By 1974 nearly $7 million was being channeled to the 13 official seminaries. For some schools this was amounting to the equivalent of $5,000 for each basic degree student.
If the extra money helped to stabilize some of the seminary programs it did not necessarily bring in more students. For one reason, because of the growing spiritual energy from the evangelical movement, evangelical seminaries were growing in numbers and influence and attracting United Methodist students. This alarmed the progressive elite who all of the sudden began to complain about students attending Baptist and “fundamentalist” schools (like Oral Roberts) where, presumably, they were not learning the historical-critical approach to the Bible and the values of other world religions. Nor were they being exposed to all the “justice” issues dear to the heart of liberals.
Thus, the appeal for more institutional control over “approved” education. So, the 1980 General Conference authorized additional standards other than the long-accepted standards of the Association of Theological Schools. The University Senate, which accredited schools, was given the authority to purge out unacceptable schools. In addition to academic excellence and freedom of inquiry, schools needed to offer “opportunities for growth in the United Methodist tradition and ethos,” compatibility with UM social principles, and racial and gender inclusiveness. The first round of purges in 1981 eliminated schools like Ashland, Trinity Evangelical, Eastern Baptist and Erskine. In 1987 schools like Oral Roberts, Central Baptist, North Park, Reformed, Talbot, Westminster, and Gordon-Conwell were dropped.
The University Senate would admit to no bias but it did speak of its concern about “narrowness of spirit,” “literalism,” and “fundamentalism.” Thus, the irony that while Church of the Nazarene students could attend UM schools and be ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, UM students could not attend Nazarene schools and be ordained. Thus, progressive claims about diversity, inclusiveness, and open-mindedness had a hollow ring.
Today there are 224 schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Of these, 57 are approved for the training of United Methodist pastors. Of the 57 only four or five of these (like Fuller or Asbury) could be labeled as evangelical. Almost all the rest could be identified as progressive in theology. Professors from these schools might be Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or even atheist but that is acceptable to the University Senate. What is not acceptable is to be Pentecostals or fundamentalists or Southern Baptists. Of the largest 18 seminaries in terms of enrollment, none are UM and only two (Asbury and Fuller) are on the UM approved list
What are the implications of all this for groups identifying with the Global Methodist Church or the reconstituted UM Church?
For one, there are many good things happening at United Methodist seminaries of today. In some ways there is more openness to evangelical thinking today than in the 1960s and 70s. Those pastors and churches quite happy with the present situation will most likely be drawn to the reconstituted UM Church, especially if they believe that the traditional Christian view of marriage (only a man and a woman) and sexual standards (celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage) are outdated.
However, there are questions to be asked about the seminary situation in the new reconstituted UM Church? It is assumed that most of the present 13 seminaries and most of the seminary faculties will relate not to the Global Methodist Church but to the more progressive reconstituted UM Church. With reduced financial resources and church membership, can the Ministerial Education Fund continue anywhere near the level of financial support it now does? There will need to be some mergers and/or closures.
The training and appointment process for the Global Methodist Church will be much different. There will be much more flexibility in seminary choices and credentialing for ministry than in the present system. For example, it is very likely that most of the evangelical schools presently not approved will be declared acceptable for the GMC. There will be closer working relationships with the evangelical seminaries. For instance, Wesley Seminary in Marion, Indiana, which after only ten years in existence already has more full-time equivalent students than all but one of the present UM seminaries, is already in conversations with persons planning the new Global Methodist Church for a special partnership. A resolution by the Indiana UM Conference several years ago asking the present University Senate to consider Wesley was never even responded to.
Stay tuned for more information.