So, an interesting bit of news: that a Unitarian Universalist House of Studies is opening at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio “early in 2016.” This was announced yesterday.
No, at first I thought this an audacious move. There are two Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-related houses of study, respectively affiliated at Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago. These have buildings, including student housing, a developed program and formal denominational recognition. Likewise, the “General Convention” Swedenborgians transformed its freestanding seminary, taking from a small Cambridge, Massachusetts institution and embedded itself into Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. These are seminaries in miniature, and the UU program at MTSO isn’t that. And that’s worth noting in case it’s written off as a pale imitation.
But Duke Divinity School has two “houses of study” (for Baptists and Episcopalians/Anglicans respectively) that’s more of a student nexus with an academic track. Something more programmatic than institutional, and that may be the model Dean Lisa Withrow and Susan Ritchie, the house of studies director, who the announcement describes as the minister of her church and “immediate past trustee and secretary on the national board of the Unitarian Universalist Association.” Nothing about her role at the Starr King School for the Ministry, which is itself strange and noticeable. But as a program with in a school, rather than alongside a school is quite reasonable.
In this light, perhaps this house of studies will be seen as a rival of Starr King, or even the much closer Meadville Lombard. But aren’t all schools that aren’t one of these — I didn’t go to either for what it’s worth — and the house of studies still functionally in the experimental phase. I am concerned that MTSO is one of the smaller contributors to the Unitarian Universalist ministerial college. If I were to develop one strategically, perhaps Boston University or Wesley here in D.C., where there are a significant number of congregations for field education. (There are only five UU congregations within 50 miles of MTSO, and only one has more than a 150 members. Field education needs field supervision.)
Which brings me to my point: this looks less like an alternative to Starr King or Meadville Lombard than an alternative to the fading option of Andover Newton. And its role in forming Unitarian Universalist ministers will be hard to replace, so good luck to the UU house of studies. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.