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NEWS FEATURE: New post-denominational seminary will span spectrum of Christianity

c. 1999 Religion News Service WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. _ The first institute to train Baptist pastors in North Carolina was opened 160 years ago. But, as classes begin in earnest at Wake Forest University’s new divinity school, the seminary’s Baptist roots and heritage will be overshadowed by a post-denominational, ecumenical approach to training clergy. As one […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. _ The first institute to train Baptist pastors in North Carolina was opened 160 years ago. But, as classes begin in earnest at Wake Forest University’s new divinity school, the seminary’s Baptist roots and heritage will be overshadowed by a post-denominational, ecumenical approach to training clergy.

As one sign of the new approach, its faculty will include a Benedictine monk, a feminist biblical scholar and a theologian who calls God”our motherly father.” Opening on the eve of the 21st century, the school is premised on the conviction that denominations no longer matter. It has shaped a curriculum grounded in no single Christian tradition but able to relate to all.

Underlying the new approach is a belief that the various strands of Christian life are perpetually in flux. Evangelicals are seeking out Roman Catholic spirituality. Episcopalians are turning to charismatic practices. Churches are changing names to hide their denominational affiliation.

This cross-denominational pollination means the postmodern minister should be as comfortable with the woman who speaks in tongues as with the man who sings Gregorian chants.

The idea is not to be trendy or politically correct, said Bill Leonard, the folksy dean of the new school. It’s to keep up with changing times.”This is a school that mirrors the future of the church,”said Leonard, a church historian.”All the major traditions are in an identity crisis. My sense of the American religious scene is that there are no models. If we’re really talking about a changing religious environment, we can’t mimic any seminary tradition.” For at least 20 years, historians have said the denominational vessels, which once held broad cross-sections of Christian believers, have cracked. Most of the major mainline denominations have seen a two-decade-long membership decline, and many Christians say their faith is no longer determined by their particular tradition. Americans’ mobility, their willingness to intermarry across faiths and their rising education levels all contribute to the weakening of the denominational system.

Other divinity schools, and especially those affiliated with the United Methodist Church or other mainline denominations, have always had an ecumenical outlook – one that explores the various Christian traditions while staying grounded in its own denominational framework. And some of these school leaders insist the demise of denominations has been greatly exaggerated.”In my judgment it’s a mistake to say we’re moving beyond them or away from them entirely,”said L. Gregory Jones, the dean of the divinity school at Duke University in Durham, N.C.”There’s a hunger for roots that is causing people to return to the particularities of denominational traditions.” Leonard, a refugee from the upheaval within the Southern Baptist Convention, has a different vision. His school is tailored, he says, to a younger generation of students, born between 1965 and 1978, who he says distrust both political and religious institutions. This independent and pragmatic generation has no interest in denominational wrangling, preferring instead small-scale action and hands-on involvement.

To help guide them, the divinity school has set up a yearlong colloquium where all incoming students and faculty gather once a week to discuss books and think about theology. Students will be required to spend two semesters working as interns in a church, a hospital or a social service agency. And with an enrollment cap of about 135 students, the school’s small atmosphere will encourage students to find their own Christian identity _ either in an existing denomination or outside the fold.

This emphasis on spiritual growth and one-on-one interaction with teachers appeals to many of the incoming class _ most of whom were also accepted to divinity schools at Duke and Emory universities and chose Wake Forest instead.”You can do all the theological studying, read all the important books, learn all the Greek and Hebrew you can stand, but until you see how Christ works in your life, until you can see it in action, all the book learning won’t do you any good,”said Cindy Smith, 25, a United Methodist from Asheville.”Wake Forest has a balance of community and intellect I was looking for.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

The creation of a divinity school at Wake Forest is both a recovery of religion’s founding role on campus and a testament to how much that role has changed.

It was Samuel Wait, a New England Baptist, who, bemoaning the dearth of ministerial training in North Carolina, founded an agricultural institute for ministers in 1834. Students worked half the day on a plantation in the tiny town of Wake Forest and spent the other half poring over the Bible. Four years later, the school became Wake Forest College, and its emphasis shifted to the liberal arts. Later came the professional schools _ first law, then medicine, and finally business.

In this, Wake Forest was no different from the nation’s great universities. At Harvard and Chicago, divinity schools were the first to be established on campus, and they were supposed to be the glue that held the university together. At the turn of the century, all human learning was thought to deepen the knowledge of God. And an educated ministry, ready to evangelize the globe, would hasten the arrival of what was to be known as the”Christian century.” But after the turn of the century, divinity schools lost their cachet.

In 1956, shortly after the medical school moved to Winston-Salem, the rest of the college followed. The old ministerial training grounds became a Southern Baptist Convention seminary. Thirty years later, the university severed all ties to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.


The 24 students at Wake Forest _ just five are men _ will wade into streams of Christian traditions in which Southern Baptists have just begun to dip their toes.

Samuel Weber, a Benedictine monk, will introduce students to the contemplative tradition in Roman Catholicism. Classes on prayer may include how monks have used psalms to mark the hours, days and seasons and expose students to Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen and contemporary Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris.

In his theology courses, E. Frank Tupper will use textbooks by a Baptist, a Methodist and an Anglican. He will also require students to consider a range of Christian thinkers from John Calvin to Karl Barth.”The traditional Baptist student has more difficulty giving sufficient weight to the humanity of Jesus,”he said.”The struggling student has more difficulty giving weight to the divinity of Jesus. I push my students to consider both.” Phyllis Trible, one of the most widely respected feminist biblical scholars, says she wants students to learn old and new methods of biblical scholarship, including textual criticism, literary criticism and, of course, feminist criticism.

Ultimately, though, she wants her students to recognize the many ways people read the Bible.”We all come to the texts with different perspectives _ African-Americans, women, Asians, Native Americans. We have been led to think the white male perspective is the only one.” Probably no one, though, will have more influence on the students than Dean Bill Leonard, who is the heir, in some respects, to Wait’s vision.

Like Wait, Leonard is a Baptist. Unlike Wait, he has led an ecumenical life. Educated at Texas Wesleyan and Boston University – both schools with a Methodist heritage – he taught church history for 16 years at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Leonard was hired in 1996 to develop a divinity school at Wake Forest, a project, he says, few have had the privilege to undertake.”When you can create a divinity school in a place of calm and stability, it’s a wonderful gift,”he said.”I want this to be a place not of polarity but of dialogue. Shouldn’t there be room for a place where one can struggle a bit more and not necessarily have to conform to particular issues?” Among the students who will make up the inaugural class are 15 Baptists, four Presbyterians, two United Methodists, one Lutheran, one Moravian and one member of the United Church of Christ.