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At Convocation and Reunions 2008, new Alumni Board mission statement arises amid lectures, worship, class gatherings

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

In recent years, attendees at Yale Divinity School’s Convocation and Reunions listened to a series of acceptance speeches from honorees at the annual Alumni Awards Banquet. But in 2008 a less formal approach was adopted, and alumni returning to Sterling Divinity Quadrangle Oct. 13-16 were treated to a “conversation” with honorees, who took time to talk about their ministries and answer questions about contemporary faith issues.

Convocation 08The conversation was part of a broader plan to provide more opportunities for discussion amongst alumni on topical issues during Convocation. Three “breakout” box lunch sessions were offered on two days, including, in addition to the engagement with alumni honorees, a session with students eager to talk about life on the Quad in 2008 and a session exploring “Life Challenges and Retirement in the 21st Century.”

With an eye toward encouraging alumni engagement in a more structural way, the Alumni Board voted at its Annual General Meeting, held on the second day of Convocation, to adopt a new mission statement and completely reconfigure its system of standing committees.

Although change was in the air— including a name shift from “Alumnal Board” to “Alumni Board”— major conventional elements of Convocation and Reunions remained in place, including a diverse array of lectures, worship services, class gatherings and photos, dinners, and coffee hours.

Reunion classes for 2008 were 1953 (55th), 1958 (50th), and 1983 (25th). “Cluster” reunions were held for the classes of 1967, 1968, 1969; 1987, 1988, 1989; and 2002, 2003, 2004.

A new mission statement

The new mission statement reads, “The YDS Alumni Board, elected as a representative body, has as its mission to represent alumni to the School and the School to them: to connect, energize, and engage alumni in support of YDS and its mission; to nurture and sustain relationships among alumni and with the faculty, administration, and students of the School; and to recognize alumni for their achievement and contribution to society.”

In an e-letter to alumni prior to Convocation, Board President George Noonan and Vice President Mary Ellen O’Driscoll described the new mission statement as “a foundation upon which we will build for the years ahead.” They added, “There is great energy and enthusiasm that accompanies this statement, and we look forward to a renewed and vital program of alumni relations.”

John Lindner, director of YDS’s Department of External Relations, observed in an interview that the act of adopting the new mission statement signifies a renewed commitment to mission and promises to serve as a catalyst for intensified synergies between YDS and it alumni.

“It becomes the basis on which all the voluntary efforts of the Board and the alumni program can grow and thrive,” said Lindner. “The basic question we started with is ‘What does it mean to have a significant lifelong relationship between an alum and the school?’”

“Some of the adaptations this year to Convocation,” he explained, “were a direct response to feedback we got from alums last year...to have more interactive direct involvement kinds of programs.”

Board Meeting

Cheney, Beecher, Shaffer and Kavanagh Lectures

Krista Tippett ’94 M.Div., creator and host of public radio’s popular Speaking of Faith program—delivered the Francis X. Cheney Lecture, sponsored by Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Joining Tippett as featured lecturers were biblical scholar and Something Within faith blogger Renita Weems (Beecher Lectures); Oxford University theologian Christopher Rowland (Shaffer Lectures); and Oriental churches scholar Robert Taft (Kavanagh Lecture, sponsored by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music).

Tippett, the author of Speaking of Faith—Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It, spoke on the topic Religion, Media, and Public Life in the 21st Century. In her talk, Tippett lamented the lack of good reporting about religion and described some of the newsroom assumptions that she believes hinder good coverage, including the idea that religion is primarily about what people believe.

Said Tippett, “Equating religion with belief, I think, is one of the most narrowing instincts in American culture... Most religious faith doesn’t revolve around belief at al....It is, again, about ways of living, it is about making sense of life, and the world, it is about ritual, sacrament, community. It is very often more about questions than it is about answers.

“For the record, I’m no longer interested very much in what religious people believe. I’m interested in how they think...I’m interested in how the totality of their experience and knowledge informs their theology, their sense of the sacred, and how their theology and sense of the sacred inform their experience and knowledge...I’m interested in the questions people have.

Weems, a widely sought-after lecturer and Beliefnet columnist, entitled her three-part Beecher lectures Preaching Against the Grain: Recovering the Voices of Those from the Underside of History.

In the last of the three lectures, Weems argued forcefully for a model of church that follows the example set by Jesus in choosing disciples from a wide range of backgrounds

Said Weems, “These two disciples, Matthew the tax collector, Simon the zealot, represented both ends of the political spectrum of the day. Jesus would not stay simply with Peter, Andrew, James and John. It would have been easier for everyone if sameness and uniformity of opinion was the first requirement, but apparently those requirements were tossed aside for the sake of including Matthew and Simon the Zealot.

“Jesus was out to make a point, not only about who he wanted to be associated with, but also he wanted to make the point that we are to work together despite our very real differences. Yes, eleven o’clock [Sunday morning] remains the most segregated hour in America ... But how different would the church look today if we realized that Jesus called the modern equivalent of the most right-wing Republican and the most left-wing Democrat to come together and be his disciples.”

Christopher Rowland, the Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford and a fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, delivered the three Shaffer lectures on the topic, From Impulse Not from Rules: the Life, Character, and Teachings of Jesus in the Light of the Prophecy, Poetry and Art of William Blake.

Rowland believes that the art and poetry of William Blake represent worthy contributions to biblical exegesis that offer a distinctive approach to the life, character and teachings of Jesus.

According to Rowland, Blake was convinced that merely speaking in the Bible’s words would not allow its word of life to be heard by his contemporaries and therefore used other strategies – art, poetry and his life as an engraver – as a way of interpreting the Bible.

But to be satisfied with Blake’s rich interpretation as an end in itself, Rowland warned, would negate the very concept of creativity that Blake sought to instill: “The mistake would be to assume that Blake had cracked the way of engaging with the Bible and that there is a kind of ‘off the shelf’ hermeneutic we can apply. There isn’t... What he does offer us is an example of hermeneutical creativity which needs to be reminted afresh in every generation.”

For the Aidan J. Kavanagh Lecture, sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, Robert F. Taft spoke on Mrs. Murphy Goes to Moscow: Kavanagh, Schmemann, and the "Byzantine Synthesis.” Taft, a Jesuit priest and founder and editor-in-chief of Anaphorae Orientales, placed Kavanaugh’s imaginary and commonplace Mrs. Murphy in the context of Byzantine Orthodox liturgy as a way to elucidate the role of liturgy in life and worship.

In Taft’s view, despite her unfamiliarity with the Byzantine Orthodox tradition and its profuse symbolism, the fictitious Mrs. Murphy would have had a spiritually fulfilling worship experience nonetheless.

He warned against “surrendering to the classical western temptation to reduce liturgy to words” and placing undue weight on interpreting the liturgy instead of allowing it to be simply absorbed by worshipers. Good liturgies, he observed, are “accessible even to the uninitiated but respectfully attentive worshiper.”

Worship service preachers were Jeffrey Haggray ’88 M.Div., executive director/minister, District of Columbia Baptist Convention; Scott Black Johnston ’89 M.Div., senior pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City; Betsy Anderson ’97 M.A.R., associate for pastoral ministry, The Parish of St. Mathew, Pacific Palisades, CA; and Carol Wade, ’03 M.Div., ’04 S.T.M., canon precentor, Washington National Cathedral.

Alumni honored with distinguished service awards

Convocation 08Four alumni were honored with distinguished alumni awards during Convocation and Reunions. Honorees included Bradford Ableson ’85 M.Div., a career Navy chaplain who was instrumental in transforming the chaplaincy from an institution focused almost wholly on the pastoral needs of personnel to one that embraces senior chaplains as agents of reconciliation with religious leaders around the globe; Timothy Ahrens ’85 M.Div., senior minister at the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Columbus, OH, and prominent social justice activist; Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div., senior minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Memphis, TN, who grew her congregation tenfold in 20 years; and Bruce Rigdon, ’62 B.D., ’68 Ph.D., well-known pastor, theological educator, ecumenical leader and social activist who once headed the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit.

Berkeley Divinity School at Yale bestowed four honorary degrees during the BDS evensong on Oct. 15. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was among the dignitaries granted honorary degrees from BDS. Others included Tippett; the Rt. Rev. Laura J. Ahrens ’91 M.Div., the first woman bishop to serve the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut; and A. Gary Shilling, writer and economist.

Also honored at Convocation were long-time Registrar Detra MacDougall, who retired in June after 45 years of service to YDS and was feted at the Alumni Awards banquet, and Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, whose portrait was unveiled at the Alumni Tea prior to being hung alongside other YDS luminaries in the Common Room later in October.

Election of new board members

At the Oct. 14 Annual meeting of the Alumni Board, five new members were elected, along with a slate of officers, including new president Mary Ellen O’Driscoll ’02; Jerry Henry ’80 M.Div., vice president/president-elect, and Kenneth Kuntz ’59 B.D., secretary.

Elected to serve three-year terms as new members of the Board were Dwight Andrews ’77 M.Div., Ki Joo Choi ’98 M.Div., Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div., and James Evans Jr. ’75 M.Div. Elected to serve the remaining year of the term of Delois Brown-Daniels ’80 M.Div., who stepped down from the Board, was Myra McNeill ’08 M.Div.

Three members of the Board were elected to continue on the Board to serve three-year terms: Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div., Bert Marshall ’97 M.Div., and Carol Rose Ikeler ’50 B.D.

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