This article is contributed by Matt Jameson, a concerned United Methodist layman from Missouri.
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. Their profiles in the official Iliff email read:
Kyndyl Greyland (they/them) Co-Chair
Kyndyl is a fourth year MDiv student. Originally from Columbia, SC. They now live in West Plains, Montana, where they work at Wyte Rayvn Church, an inclusive Wiccan Church.
David Dashifen Kees (they/them) – Secretary
Dash is a fourth year MDiv student living in Alexandria, Virginia. They are Jewish and practiced Judaism into their teenage years, but encountered Paganism in the mid-90s and have been following that path since then. Dash is one of the initiates of the Firefly House in Washington DC – an organization for Wiccans, witches, polytheists, and other magic workers – and works with the house to offer public Pagan religious and educational events.
(The content of that email has been posted here after removing only identifying information about the original recipient.)
Note how both of these individuals cite their “preferred pronouns” as “they/them,” indicating a choice to identify as non-binary-gendered, neither male nor female.
According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wicca is a relatively recent religious movement “whose followers practice witchcraft and nature worship and who see it as a religion based on pre-Christian traditions of northern and western Europe.”
A local news report in late 2019 identified Kees as “a Wiccan priest” and gave Kees a chance to share about how “there are people in the community that take action through magic, through spell work” against actions of the Trump administration.
Kees is also highlighted on Iliff’s website under “Iliff Stories – Welcome to my journey.” This profile shares about how Iliff helped the Kees become a better, more diversity-allied pagan leader. Kees shared how that “the language and ritual structure of many [pagan] traditions is explicitly linked to a gender binary, something that has caused strife within the trans community within Wicca.”
Publicly lifting up a transgendered Wiccan as a model student leader seems like an odd choice for a United Methodist seminary. But this appears to honestly reflect Iliff’s values.
In addition to four-fifths of Iliff’s student leaders identifying as pagan, the UMC-apportionment-funded seminary has also recently offered a course on “Social Justice in Western Earth-Honoring Traditions.” The class’s official objectives:
- “Explore broad views of social and earth justice through the lenses of various modern, Western earth honoring traditions, such as: goddess spirituality/Wicca, polytheism/animism, eco-womanism, creation spirituality and deep ecology.
- Consider the social justice implications of a theological reorientation from monotheism to polytheism
- Rediscover the roots and potentialities of Western earth-based religious traditions for the pursuit of social justice without appropriating indigenous cultural traditions
- Identify the pitfalls of Western-based earth-honoring traditions in perpetuating norms and practices of inequality and injustice especially in terms of racism, gender-based dualisms, and cultural appropriation.”
In an introductory video, the professor explains that she asks all students in this class to “engage in a regular practice of Earth honoring and connecting that, somehow collectively, to thinking about social justice in the context in which you are living and working” (begin around the 0:45 mark). That Iliff professor is Dr. Julie Todd, a self-described “radical sexual liberationist” who surrendered her United Methodist ordination credentials in protest of the 2019 General Conference’s adoption of the Traditional Plan.
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.
But Paganism at Iliff is not an entirely new thing. Already by the late 1990s, Iliff’s Coordinator of Academic Administration was an alumna who also served as national president of an organized faction of Unitarian Universalists who identify as pagans (see page 7 of this newsletter and page 4 of this one). So it seems that Iliff has a history of having staffers who are not just dabblers, but key national leaders within the American pagan community. Might Iliff have been slowly but increasingly leavened by such pagan yeast over the last couple of decades?
In addition to its pagan spirituality class, Iliff also very intentionally devotes coursework to preparing students to lead and advance the post-Christian religion of Unitarian Universalism. The Iliff website even-handedly lists “Unitarian Universalist” alongside a handful of Protestant denominations whose leaders the seminary is especially committed to serving. Iliff elsewhere makes clear that the United Methodist seminary has chosen to offer courses required for Unitarian Universalist ordination, including “Unitarian Universalist History” (whose syllabus speaks of the material as “our religious history”) and “Unitarian Universalist Polity & Mission” (a class which clearly has little purpose other than helping students prepare for UU ordination).
The alumni profiles section also includes celebrations of individuals Iliff has helped launched into spreading Unitarian Universalism. One such profile seems intended to market to potential UU students how Iliff would be supportive environment for their post-Christian faith, another celebrates Iliff’s role in how one student “found a home in with the UUs” [sic], and another concluded with a (now-outdated) link to “a resource for Iliff students and prospective students” who are UU.
Again, nothing is wrong with having good relations with Unitarian Universalists. But why is a heavily UMC-apportionment-subsidized institution intentionally training clergy to serve and advance a tradition historically rooted in rejecting the divinity of Christ?
Iliff’s desires to pander to non-Christian constituencies and to avoid treating any sort of Christianity preferable among belief systems is evident in other classes. For example, a 2022 statement on “Learning Areas and Goals for Spiritual Care Courses” states: “Spiritual care courses at Iliff prepare students to become community faith leaders and chaplains who practice spiritual self-differentiation by” developing a mindset “that truly respects religious differences by not enacting a hierarchical system of religious/spiritual traditions and practices, with some more superior or truthful than others.” While talking about “spiritual and/or religious practices,” the syllabus for a “Pastoral Theology & Care” course adds a seemingly apologetic footnote saying: “Humanist, pagan, and first nations communities are examples of traditions or cultures that do not use terms like spiritual or religious to describe themselves. We acknowledge that our use of these terms may be less relevant for them.” One key text for a course on “Ministry and Human Sexuality” was produced by Unitarian Universalist Association.
The situation is comparable to the apportionment-funded Claremont School of Theology, which, although another UMC-affiliated seminary, has been criticized for offering classes and degrees designed for Islamic clergy.
While there are some restrictions on how seminaries like Claremont and Iliff can use apportionment moneys they receive, the apportionments strengthen their overall budgets.
All of this raises the question of why should the UMC fund clergy-training institutions which are not committed to, and sometimes openly undermine, such values as the divinity of Christ and the moral standards of the United Methodist Book of Discipline?