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Adele S. Bonney


History and theology would seem to support President Les Garner’s choice of academic rigor as the primary criterion for Cornell’s church-relatedness. He adds a commitment to the teaching and study of religion and a responsiveness to the spiritual needs of students. Garner also believes college and church share a mission: “We’re engaged, each in our own way, in developing leadership for a humane world. The college does this by educating young people broadly and preparing them through experiences of campus life for the world they’ll encounter as adults.”

In his position, Garner sees several dimensions of church-relatedness, from the common history, tradition, and values, to the more official association, which includes the annual financial contributions of the Iowa Conference (which amounted to $28,555 in 1998-99). He considers public acknowledgment of the formal church relationship an important part of the college’s identity, as documented in print and online in Cornell’s mission statement, catalogue, and its fact sheet. He sees the founders’ desire for community partnerships kept alive through Cornell’s joint activities with local and area churches, such as continuing education for clergy or “Confirmation Day” on campus for middle and high school students, or the upcoming Small-Thomas Lecture (see page 7.). Even as worldly a practice as budgeting is church-related, says Garner, when one-third of revenue committed to financial assistance represents and realizes the Methodist Church’s longstanding commitment to access.

And what of the pressure from secular trends? The question does not worry the president as it does scholars like George Marsden or Stanley Hauerwas, whose writings accuse church-related colleges of losing their souls to “secularization.” Taking the long view, Garner points out, “John Wesley was concerned about the same things: materialism, poverty, the disruption of the family by alcohol.”

Of more concern to this campus leader is another question: What dynamic form of relationship will fit the college and the church for the complexities of the present and uncertainties of the future? Seeking the answer, Garner has involved himself in discussions at the conference and national levels, including special consultations with the presidents of the other Methodist colleges in Iowa, led by Bishop Wesley Jordan of the Iowa Conference. The group is working to formulate a statement about the church-college relationship that they hope to present at the Annual Conference in June.

The late Merrimon Cuninggim, Methodist scholar and college president, would have encouraged Garner’s efforts. Working to maintain a “credible and mutually understood” relationship with a founding church is one of three “requisites” for church-relatedness that he identified in his 1994 book Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church. Cornell also meets Cuninggim’s other conditions: appreciation (and public acknowledgment) of ecclesiastical origins and a focus on “essential academic values.”

By so many criteria, George Bowman’s college is “church-related.” And with the enduring sustenance of its founding denomination, coupled with a responsiveness to the opportunities of a 21st-century world, all who love and lead Cornell can say with Cuninggim, “Look around at what we have, and what the church-related colleges have a chance to become. And be thankful.”

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