Along the River Thames, a little bit of Yale Divinity School
LONDON, England—In a quiet, almost hidden corner of southwest London overlooking the River Thames, people from the worlds of business, education, religion, media and public service gathered on March 11 at the Hurlingham Club for a dinner hosted by Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge. Some had long connections to Yale and the Divinity School. For others the crowd, with its mix of clerical collars and business suits, proved less familiar territory.
Such a gathering is a bit of a gamble. Would theological education and the concerns of “one little American divinity school”—as Attridge put it—create enough common ground to include and engage everyone around the table? And even if it did, what value would come from it for YDS or anyone else?
In the weeks before the dinner, the developing list of invitees looked interesting and broad ranging. Then, an unexpected story in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, several days prior to the meal, reported former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plans to teach at YDS in the fall of 2008. Suddenly guests who appeared intriguingly “diverse” had the potential to become positively dynamic as well, especially since both UK press members and Downing Street veterans were on the guest list.
For Attridge the risks involved with this and other such events are absolutely worth taking to ensure that Yale Divinity School is pressing beyond the walls of the Academy to engage a larger world where faith, values and culture meet. Yale, with its resources, its networks—and, most of all, its talented and theologically astute student body and faculty—has much to offer a world where religion has such a public and ambiguous 21st century presence, Attridge believes. It also has much to learn from those working at the sharp end, “where the rubber hits the road,” or what the British call “the coal face.”
As people arrived at the Hurlingham Club, introductions quickly became animated conversations between people who were keen to get to know a bit about each other. Attridge’s after-dinner comments on innovative efforts at YDS in areas of faith and culture, interfaith relations, spirituality and the workplace, God and politics, provoked nods and questions from lawyers, parliamentarians, journalists, business people and church leaders alike.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, they made lively and challenging comments about YDS’s leadership in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians opened up by the Common Word statement initiated by Muslim scholars and responded to by the Yale-generated statement Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to a Common Word Between Us and You.
They wanted to discuss the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent remarks on Sharia law and continuing controversy over human sexuality, faith and citizenship, and Middle East politics. While the impending autumn appearance of Blair at YDS was a matter of interest, much more animated conversation was generated by the task of how to transform the wealth of reflection and experience embodied in an institution like YDS into something more visible and accessible to communities, institutions and decision-makers around the world.
When Attridge brought the evening to a formal close, people did not leave. Even though it was a weeknight. Even though it was getting late. They continued to sit and talk in small groups for quite some time, remarking on what a breath of fresh air it was to spend an evening amongst so many people who approached religion with seriousness, candor and optimism. Cards were exchanged and promises made for further conversation.
“I was hoping it would be an engaging evening with an opportunity to meet interesting people who, like me, deal in the currency of religion. I was not disappointed,” commented Michael Wakelin, head of the BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department. “There was a real buzz about the dinner table partly because of the quality of brains present, but also because there was an unstated but agreed understanding that religion's time has come. There is simply no more important or influential subject on the global agenda and now is the time for religious thinkers and broadcasters to step up to the plate.”
In the wake of the London visit, Attridge said, “We had an engaging and very lively conversation with a group of very interesting friends.” Among the participants, he noted, were members of Tony Blair’s staff; the Rev. Canon Martin Seeley, principal of Westcott House, a theological school in Cambridge with which YDS has a student exchange program; and several Yale College alumni.
“There were representatives from various faith traditions and people who are also involved in the political scene in the UK, and so those contacts I think will be very useful as we move forward with issues of faith and globalization,” said Attridge. He described attendees as being very interested in globalization and in YDS’s “attempts to take issues of the relationship between religion and politics very seriously.”