United Ministry Lives Its Own Life
In 1958 a major religious controversy swept Harvard when a CRIMSON article attacked then University Preacher George A. Buttrick for refusing to allow a Jewish student to be married by a rabbi in Memorial Church. It took a month for the Corporation to reverse the ruling and end the debate that had sustained dinner table conversations for weeks. In the eight years since religion as dinnertime conversation has rarely lasted through the potatoes, and its campus representative, the United Ministry, has in that time had to get used to talking largely to itself.
Exciting things have happened to religion in those eight years. The ecumenical movement has arisen with Pope John and a number of articulate Protestant leaders producing tangible church reform and reunification. American churches haves for the first time become involved in politics. Religious architecture and education have embraced a thousand accouterments of the modern world, right down to Madison Avenue advertising. But aside from a few small scattered course and seminars, the only sustained discussion of these issues at Harvard has occurred once a week in a room at the Phillips Brooks House, where the Harvard-Radcliffe United Ministry--13 men--have met to consider their place in a university that in these eight years has rarely had time to listen to them.
Despite the United Ministry members' common isolation, their ideological and administrative ties even to each other are somewhat weak. In private conversation many point out the difficulties of acting as a group when each man has a responsibility to his particular religious community and tradition. No two men have the same responsibilities. Some are paid to deal only with students; some both minister to students and pursue limited administrative tasks in their own adult parishes; some are senior ministers of large Cambridge churches who take time from other activities to deal with college students.
None of these differences do much to help the United Ministry's capacity for united action. Since September the members have drafted and approved one 150 word statement supporting the right to protest government foreign policy. Other attempts to enlist their joint support of various policy statements have failed.
"Its hard to know just what is the position of the religious community at Harvard on these issues," explains The Rev. James Blanning, of the United Church of Christ, "and I tend to feel we are only speaking for ourselves. We're very hesitant to talk as if we were the holy religious oracle. I don't think the Harvard community would buy that."
The Ministry's combined efforts have accounted for numerous speakers on campus, a program of social field projects for Divinity School students, and very recently a visitation service for students in Stillman Infirmary. But the United Ministry's weekly meetings only occasionally deal with joint projects. Much of the time is spent just talking and learning about each other. Sometimes student problems--sex, loneliness, drugs--are discussed, and sometimes the members review the widely differing programs that each pursues in their own student groups.
This collection of different programs bothers some members. "The undergraduate sees the United Ministry as a prolifera of one night stands," Blannings says. But other members, such as the Rev. Richard E. Mumma of the United Presbyterian church do not necessarily lament this disunity: "The United Ministry is not an action oriented group," he explains "but action can be taken by the individual."
Here the argument ends, for united or not, religious activities still hold little interest for Harvard students. The general formula for religious participation at Harvard is 15 or 20 interested students for every 100 with a definite religious background. Explanations of the lack of interest seem to vary with the denomination but have little to do with the state of the United Ministry. "I think the religious doubts start in high school, long before students get here," speculates the Rev. Rene O. Bideaux of the Methodist Church, "They have them when they get off the bus." The Rev. Ernst E. Klein of the Baptist Church claims that "many students will not give us a chance because they are running from the Baptist Church in Pumpkin Corners. Iowa."
Each United Ministry member has a different formula for breaking down the wall of disinterest. There are members who put some faith in convenient, well-stocked facilities. An official at Hillel House claims that attendance at Sabbath services has more than doubled since they were moved from Hillel House to the more accessible Phillips Brooks House. The Rev. Joseph I. Collins points to the new Catholic student center, with library, common room, kitchen, TV, workroom, and ping-pong tables, as the cause of a great jump in Catholic Club membership.
But what University ministers most carefully pursue are personal contacts with students. The Rev. William J. Schneider's large Episcopal student organization allows him to send students to the homes of Episcopalians who have just been accepted to Harvard. Many other United Ministry members send letters at the beginning of the fall term to all who fill out the religious preference cards. This procedure is not held in universal esteem: "This preference card business has no relation to reality," Blanning complains. "By the sophomore year most undergraduates realize that filling them out isn't required, and don't."
Few students follow up the letters or other indications that there are clergy waiting to receive them. "I sit in my office in the PBH," says Richard Mumma, who has a regularly scheduled office hour, "and not a soul has ever come."
Mumma, however, is the prime mover in one approach to campus religion that has enjoyed some degree of student interest and participation. With no responsibilities to any parish or student group, Mumma has become somewhat of a roving agitator, encouraging groups all over the campus, both religious and non-religious, to involve themselves in the social issues of the day. With civil rights taking less of Mumma's time this year, he has helped found the Americans for Reappraisal of Far Eastern Policy chapter at Harvard and the multi-group effort to sponsor Vietnam teach-outs. Although the United Ministry members all indicate their approval of clerical participation in social and political issues, Mumma spends by far the most time with students on such matters. "You might describe me as the ecclesiastical equivalent of a cocktail party host he says, "My role in pursuing these issues is as a catalyst--calling and talking to people--though I'm changed in the process also."
Here again the approach to this sort of religious activity differs as the duties of each United Minstry member differ. Men like Ernst Klein, whose responsibilities to their congregations give them less time for wide spread activities like Mumma's, still manage to make significant contributions. Klein, for example, persuaded his church to finance a $500 group membership in the NAACP.
The United Ministry's encouragement of social awareness has pleased even the anti-religious at Harvard, but it remains to be seen whether it has won, or is expected to win, any converts because of its efforts. Each United Ministry member has his flock--ranging from Jews and Episcopalians numbering in the hundreds to barely a handful of Presbyterians--but none seems impressed with the relative abundance or dearth of his followers. Most of the members, especially the younger men like Mumma, Blanning, and Schneider, seem satisfied to influence and be influenced by the great ecumenical, theological, and social changes that are pushing their religions into the modern secular world. The number of other people who might be drawn into the excitement seems almost immaterial to them, just so the excitement is there for them and the few students who actively seek it.
Some don't even consider their own jobs as sacred. Blanning, a graduate of Cornell Law School, is still considering taking the Massachusetts Bar Examination. He predicts a day when churches will have developed an ordained clergy who do things other than routine pastoral chores. "Half my counselling as a minister is legal work anyway," Blanning admits. Perhaps its time, he adds, to develop specialized clergy--working and knowledgeable in fields like law, psychiatry, or economics.
Not all Blanning's United Ministry colleagues agree with him. One, a man who needs an old established church, says he feels such thinking comes from the frustration of not possessing the sustaining element of a congregation and all the duties it entails. "I've attended meetings with these younger men," the minister went on, "where they continually show their unhappiness by throwing rocks at their jobs and at their religion. Still, I have nothing against a man taking a dual role if he thinks its right for him."
Both young and old in the United Ministry say the group's greatest asset is the ecumenism it promotes. "For 400 years, Protestants and Catholics weren't even speaking to each other,"
"This preference card business has no relation to reality. By the sophomore year most undergraduates realize that filling them out isn't required, and don't." Schneider points out. "The real strength of the United Ministry is just the fact that we are all meeting together."
Nonetheless the excitement of the ecumenical movement has meant as little to church enrollment in the United States as it has to religious participation at Harvard. Again, the United Ministry doesn't seem bothered by the small numbers of students it contacts. The members will continue to explore the rapidly changing theologies and political social institutions that influence moral commitments today. But their influence on the moral and religious course of the lives of most Harvard students is liable to remain tangential