United Methodism’s Iliff Seminary Embraces Paganism

United Methodism’s Iliff Seminary Embraces Paganism

There’s nothing wrong with United Methodists wanting to have good interfaith relations, whether it’s with Pagans, Jews, Muslims, atheists,  or adherents of other religions. There’s also no problem with studying other philosophies and theologies that are non-Christian, but doing so from a distinctively Christian standpoint. Yet, given that Iliff has an admissions counselor who is pagan, multiple student-elected leaders who are pagan, a web page highlighting one of their pagan students and a class dedicated to pagan spirituality, the situation seems go beyond just seeking good interreligious relations.

One might assume that the official seminaries established and still heavily funded by the United Methodist Church would have a core commitment to the Christian faith, broadly understood. More informed United Methodists would at least expect that even the progressivism in our seminaries would remain Christian liberalism. But our denomination’s Iliff School of Theology in Denver has actually progressed so far to be oddly atheism-friendly and actually promote completely different religions – Unitarian Universalism and outright Paganism. And Iliff’s pagan connections run deeper than many realize.

Iliff, as a United Methodist seminary, receives funding from the church’s Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). The MEF is a large chunk of the apportionment payments demanded of local United Methodist congregations. According to official data compiled by Joe Kilpatrick, between 2009-2016, Iliff was supported by an average contribution of $806,763 per year from the fund. But with all of that money, they only educated an annual average of a mere 11 people ordained into American United Methodist ministry (out of a yearly average of 516 total ordinands). Iliff is not merely generously subsidized by United Methodist apportionments, but it is disproportionately supported, receiving an average of $71,712 per ordinand, well above the $48,942-per-ordinand average for all 13 official U.S. United Methodist seminaries. (Attempts to seek updated statistics from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and Iliff itself were unsuccessful.)

Given this amount of support, it may surprise the average United Methodist that Iliff intentionally trains clergy to promote Unitarian Universalism and that outright Paganism is openly practiced by people who study and work at Iliff.

Iliff’s extensive statement of its many “Core Values” makes clear the United Methodist seminary’s commitment to intersectional, progressive social justice, but says nothing directly about God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible. This official statement does not even have anything particularly Christian beyond passing references to the school’s “United Methodist heritage.” Another official statement declares, “Support of the LGBTQIA+ community is a core value at Iliff” and reports, “Since we began tracking the metrics in 2015, 35% of our student body has consistently identified as LGBTQIA+.” In deference to this constituency, the seminary has offered an entire course devoted to “Queer Spirituality in the Visual Arts,” in which students can explore such topics as “Queer Tarot.”

Iliff School of Theology: where commitment to the LGBTQIA+ cause is a core value, but following Jesus Christ is not.

This sidelining of Christianity seems to deliberately reflect the school’s commitment to a pluralist religious ethos. One current staffer and alumna has publicly said, “The Iliff School of Theology is a United Methodist school of higher education but its alumni and students are Hindus, Universalists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics….” An alumni profiles section of the website—the sort of place where schools brag about select alumni of whom they are particularly proud and with whom they want to publicly identify the institution’s reputation—includes a glowing profile of a minister of a “social justice-oriented” United Methodist congregation in Iowa in which “people identify as Catholic, Methodist, Buddhists, Unitarians, agnostics and spiritual seekers.”

Apparently, even something as basic as belief in God is not a boundary for Iliff. The alumni profiles section also celebrates a chaplain who is part of the atheistic American Humanist Society. And a faculty profile highlights an Iliff professor who “now describes himself as a ‘lapsed Buddhist,’ and a current atheist.”

Iliff’s influences from neo-paganism and Unitarian Universalism are especially noteworthy. The former is a loose movement of Westerners rejecting mainstream religion to re-adopt various religious beliefs and practices from pre-Christian Europe. The latter is a liberal, post-Christian religion known for its belief in the relativistic equality of different religions. Unitarian Universalists often call themselves “UUs” for short.

Even when students first apply to Iliff, they may interact with an admissions representative who is a self-described member of the “LGBTIQ+ community” and pagan priestess, or as her official bio puts it, she “is ordained with a Norse pagan organization called Forn Sidr of America and serves as their Gudellri/head clergy.” Shouldn’t official ambassadors for a school so heavily funded by the UMC be Methodist, or at least some sort of Christian?

Such pagan influence is seen in the culture of Iliff’s student body. The seminary’s student government is “an elected representative body” called the student Senate. An official seminary email sent in November to alumni celebrated the election of five student leaders to this body. Two stand out in particular: Kyndyl Greyland and David Dashifen Kees.

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