Toward Interreligious Leadership Formation

By: Br.  A. Whitney LC Lawrence
December 20, 2012

“Are you the chaplain?” A slightly bemused expression played across my face, given I was standing there wearing a clerical collar. “Yes, I am.” “Hi, my name is Trevor. I’m a freshman communications major from Minnesota. I’m Methodist, I’m gay, and I want to be a pastor.” When I finally managed to pick my jaw up off the floor I replied, “You’re hired.” Thus began my second week as the new University Chaplain for Community Life at Boston University, and thus began the Marsh Associate program at Marsh Chapel.

Something is happening at Marsh Chapel. The Holy Spirit is moving and is awakening young people to a sense of calling, a sense of vocation. We even put vocation in our mission statement: voice, vocation, volume. Within the wide swath of vocational work undertaken at the Chapel, the Marsh Associate program is perhaps the most exciting, especially since we were able to scale it up with funding from a Fund for Theological Education Pastoral Internships Grant. Undergraduate students are given the opportunity to participate in a paid internship program of 12-15 hours per week that combines liturgical leadership, programmatic development, pastoral conversation, and theological reflection. As of May 2012, four students have graduated from the program, of whom three are engaged in graduate theological education in competitive schools, and one is serving in a mission intern program. We have three more students currently in the internship program, and a host of candidates waiting in line for next year.

Something else is happening at Boston University. BU is the fourth largest private research institution in the Unites States, and was founded as the first school for the training of Methodist clergy in the U.S. as Newbury Biblical Institute. Since its inception in 1839, Boston University has been open to all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion. For many years BU has been known as a school remarkably hospitable to Jewish students, so much so that it is sometimes referred to as BJew. More recently, we are home to one of the largest and most active Hindu Students Councils, our Islamic Society has a large and active presence on campus, and the School of Theology has been recognized as one of the top twenty schools for interfaith education. As the population of international students at BU continues to grow, slated to surpass 20% in the coming academic year, the religious diversity of the campus will grow as well.

Our Marsh Associate program has been and is being pushed to register these shifts. Marsh Chapel is both an interdenominational ministry on the Boston University campus, in the liberal Protestant tradition of the founders of the school, and it is also the Religious Life Office. Both roles call us to provide a radical hospitality to all students at the University. We have discovered that religious leadership cannot be expressed in such a cosmopolitan context solely in terms of Protestant Christianity. This year our cohort of interns includes a Catholic student and a Unitarian Universalist. Students who have expressed interest for next year include two Jewish students and one Hindu student. We are presently wrestling with questions about how this will impact various aspects of our program, particularly the elements of liturgical leadership and theological reflection. Marsh Chapel is not unique among college and university chaplaincies in wrestling with these issues.

What would it mean for a Jewish student to read scripture in an interdenominational Christian worship service? Certainly there is an argument to be made that the experience of such liturgical leadership has value in its own right. It is good for developing a public speaking voice. It is transferrable to liturgical contexts beyond Christianity. There is value in having your voice broadcast on NPR to almost 60,000 people per week. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns of power and privilege. Should a chapel founded in and presently expressing a liberal Protestant ethos ask a Jewish student to participate in our worship life? What would happen to the integrity of the internship program if an intern indicated that participating in our service would be inconsistent with being a responsible member of their tradition?

“There is plenty of reason to hope that interfaith theological reflection can be extremely fruitful, but there is no firmly established standard for how to do so.”

And what does theological reflection look like in an interfaith context? To be sure, comparative theology is an emerging field in theological education at present, and there is a petition afoot for an interfaith studies group at the American Academy of Religion. At the same time, debates about how best to set the terms of coming to the interreligious dialogue table have raged in the academic literature for decades, and myriad models for such encounter are available in the practices of interfaith groups and organizations. There is plenty of reason to hope that interfaith theological reflection can be extremely fruitful, but there is no firmly established standard for how to do so.

Admittedly, there is a decisive theological commitment to transforming a religious leadership internship program into an interreligious leadership internship program. That commitment, on the part of the program, is to be at least minimally willing to suspend judgment about the soteriological status and doctrinal veracity of the members of various traditions involved. In some contexts, this theological bracketing may be too much to ask, but recent data suggest that there is a trend afoot in American Christianity generally toward an even more generous theological understanding of other traditions.

Since its founding in the early 1950s, The Fund for Theological Education has been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in theological education, and has provided dedicated resources to overcome gaps in minority representation therein. As the religious landscape in the U.S. continues to evolve, religious minorities are significantly underrepresented in theological education. As FTE is taking time this year to discern its own vocation moving forward, it seems to me a natural and timely continuation of the core mission and vision of the organization to begin moving in the direction of addressing this serious gap.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow has raised the question as to what it will mean for U.S. societal norms and values when whites become a statistical minority in the population about twenty years from now. He seems to suggest that there may be a need, at some point, for some sort of white identity movement. This seems a bit off, given that privilege is not directly proportional to demographics. The same logic applies to Christianity. Just as the privilege of whites demands focused and dedicated resources targeted toward overcoming the underrepresentation of racial minorities in the U.S., Christian privilege demands focused and dedicated resources targeted toward overcoming underrepresentation of religious minorities. And the statistical decline in Christianity in the U.S. is not an excuse for ignoring this need, as Christian privilege continues to rule the day.

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