The nation's oldest Christian graduate school and a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago have announced they will be merging to create an "interreligious theological university" by next year.
Officials from Andover Newton Theological School in Boston and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago made the announcement on Monday, saying that they hope the as-yet unnamed institution will become "an innovative center for educating religious leaders for service in a pluralistic world."
"Across the country seminaries are searching to capture the opportunities of this new era in the life of the church, respond to the growing complexities of a multi-faith society, and yet meet the ever-present challenges of financial sustainability. This vision has the potential to offer innovative answers to these questions, and do so not only in the curriculum but in the design of the corporation as well," said the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton and incoming president of the new institution.
The seminaries' officials further noted that the new institution will be a "partnership" where participating schools will be allowed to keep their historic names and faith traditions while "gaining significant financial and administrative advantage through a single corporate infrastructure."
"This new interreligious 'theological university' is designed to serve seminarians of all religions, and seeks to strengthen their faiths and identities – not water them down," said the Rev. Dr. Lee C. Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will become a senior executive in the new entity. "It is in valuing each other's distinctions that we find the ground for the greatest learning."
"We hope other like-minded seminaries will join us because they share our mission to train leaders who are prepared to serve in a religiously diverse world and want to do so in a model that can offer a financially sound footing," he added.
Both Andover, which was established in 1805 and has affiliations with the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches USA, and Meadville, established in 1844, have shown strong commitments to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue in recent years.
In 1984, Meadville helped to create the Association of Chicago Theological Schools, which includes Catholic, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Lutheran institutions. In 2008, Andover helped to launch the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) in 2008 together with neighboring Hebrew College.
"The presence of the religious 'other' throughout a student's education requires the aspiring rabbi, minister, cantor or educator to articulate his or her religious commitments with clarity and conviction, while remaining open to learning from people with different beliefs and practices," reads a description about CIRCLE on Hebrew College's website.
The merger announcement comes just weeks after Claremont Theological Seminary, a Methodist-affiliated school in Southern California, announced that it would begin offering training for Jewish and Muslim clerics in the fall.
While Claremont's move received praise, especially from those in the surrounding Muslim and Jewish communities, conservative Methodists have expressed disapproval.
"Claremont seems to be moving away from its responsibility to the United Methodist Church," Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, told the Los Angeles Times. "It almost seems that they're trying to fulfill the stereotype that many in the church have of liberal Methodism on the West Coast."
Meanwhile, the nation's first Islamic college will be opening its doors this year.
Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif. will be offering majors in Arabic language and Islamic theological and legal studies as it holds its first semester this fall.