ITC: On the Frontier of Black Ecumenism; Interdenominational Theological Center Is a Unique Consortium of Six Seminaries

By Turner, Renee D. | Ebony, April 1990 | Go to article overview

ITC: On the Frontier of Black Ecumenism; Interdenominational Theological Center Is a Unique Consortium of Six Seminaries


Turner, Renee D., Ebony


ITC On The Frontier Of Black Ecumenism

WHAT is being called one of the finest experiments in cooperative Protestant religious education is taking place on the southwest side of Altanta. Called ITC by almost everyone, the International Theological Center is a unique consortium of six seminaries that provides graduate religious education. The institution also is considered the pinnacle of Black ecumenism for it brings together students from 12 countries, 19 denominations and various walks of life.

"Ecumenical interchange is part of the warp and woof of who we are," says Dr. James Costen, ITC's president. But equally as germane to the school's existence, he says, is a progressive, accredited curriculum of religious study taught from a Black perspective by some of the most renowned Black theologians of our time.

The school was born out of the Black Church's need to prepare clergy for the increasingly complex demands on ministers in a world fraught with family crises, poverty, violence, injustice and escapism. It also was founded out of economic necessity. In 1958, four major Black religious training institutions, unable to individually secure the funds needed for educational and physical improvements, agreed after years of negotiation to form ITC. They were: Atlanta's Gammon Theological Seminary, started by the United Methodists in 1883; Morehouse School of Religion, a Baptist school begun in 1867; Turner Theological Seminary, organized by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1885; and a Tennessee school started in 1885 by the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Phillips School of Theology. They were joined in 1970 by Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, operated by the Presbyterians; and Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary, a school of the Church of God in Christ.

Representatives from each seminary sit on a governing board that oversees the management of jointly held property, such as classrooms and chapel, and makes decisions about faculty and curriculum. The school has 160 courses leading to five degrees: masters of divinity, Christian education, and church music, and doctorates in ministry and sacred theology. Each seminary has its own board of directors, pays an affiliation fee, which in combination covers 17 percent of ITC's $3.5 million budget, and is responsible for providing students with housing, financial aid and instruction in denominational history, structure and doctrine.

Founded in diversity, the school has thrived as a welter of different religious views and practices blended into a unique educational experience. Denominational boards have differed with ITC administration over the appropriate level of support. Fundamentalists have debated progressives about the use of "inclusive language," such as "humanity" for "mankind," and about women teaching theology. Various faiths argue that their church is more correct because it either immerses or sprinkles at baptism. But over the years, such discourse has led to problem resolution and greater compassion for diversity. In the 1970s, the school erased a $529,000 deficit when each seminary agreed to compromises and to pay a portion of the shortfall.

In the process, students like Dennis Yarbrough, 32, have developed a greater appreciation of diversity. Yarbrough, who attends ITC as part of a pilot program for Lutheran seminarians, says he was exposed to 300 students from rural and urban backgrounds, corporate executives and career ministers, and challenged about "the Gospel." As a result, he says, "I gained a greater respect for the context from which people come, and a better understanding of the Scripture. I am more sensitive to the theology of the Lutheran Church and to the Black experience. And I am challenged now to do theology from both contexts."

This kind of intellectual stimulation is an ITC trademark.

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