Thursday, December 03, 2009

Muslim Studies Program at Canadian Seminary

This summer my family and I had the privilege of staying a few days in Toronto with a friend and Disciples minister and scholar, who happens to be heading up the United Church of Canada's theological school -- Emmanuel College. Mark and I had a number of conversations, but one of them focused on a unique program in the works -- a program of studies for Muslim leaders. It might sound a bit odd, but really it's a great idea.

Well, that program, to be launched by Emmanuel College, and led by Mark Toulouse, is about to get its launch. I found this accounting of the program at the Disciples News site and followed it to another Disciples blog focusing on Canadian Disciples. It is a recounting of a conversation by Wanda Bryant Mills with Dr. Mark Toulouse.

Take a read:


Mark Toulouse was living in a home on the quiet Texas prairie with his wife one year ago. He was teaching American Religious History at Brite Divinity School, just as he had for nearly 23 years, and where he also had served in several administrative positions. But an unexpected phone call from the President of a Canadian university to Toulouse about a possible job in Canada has meant a lot of changes in his life.

Today Toulouse and his wife, Jeffica, live in a four-story townhouse in downtown Toronto, a cosmopolitan city of more than 4.8 million people.

Toulouse walks to his job as principal of Emmanuel College, a theological school located in a stately ivy-covered building on the bustling University of Toronto campus. As principal, he is the chief administrative officer at the College, responsible for both the academic and community life there, in addition to his more routine duties as a professor on the faculty. Emmanuel is considered a ‘constituent’ college of Victoria University, whose Board of Regents is the chief governing body for the school. Victoria is a federated university within the University of Toronto, and Emmanuel is also a member college of the Toronto School of Theology, an ecumenical federation of seven theological schools (three affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, one with the Presbyterians, two with the Anglicans, and one with the United Church of Canada). Together, they offer doctoral degrees in a variety of disciplines.

About 160 students are enrolled at Emmanuel College, and its mission remains much the same as when it was founded…to prepare women and men for ministry in the United Church of Canada. But as in other aspects of modern life, change is impacting the world of theological education, and Emmanuel College has not been immune.

Beginning next semester, the College will start offering a Muslim (Islamic) Studies certificate program. Conversations about the program were just getting underway while Toulouse was finishing his responsibilities in Texas, but since arriving he has picked up the ball and moved the initiative forward.

Toulouse, an ordained Disciples minister, met with me on a sunny weekday morning in his office last month while I was on sabbatical in October 2009. The affable professor and administrator chatted for about an hour on a number of topics, but it was clear a lot of his passion revolved around new ways to meet the educational needs of the growing Muslim community in the area.

“One of the major issues among Muslims in Toronto is finding ways to connect to education in relevant ways,” Toulouse told me. Muslims currently represent 2 percent of the total population of Canada, he said, and about 5 percent of the population in Toronto, making them the second largest religious group in the country.

In a paper he authored, Toulouse asked the question that many perhaps have put to him: “Why would Emmanuel College, founded by the United Church of Canada in 1928 in order to educate persons for the Christian ministry, have interest in providing education for Muslims?”

Toulouse points out a number of reasons in the paper, including one that stuck out for me: “Along with the United Church of Canada, members of the Emmanuel College community see Muslims as neighbors, as friends, and most of all as people whom God has called to faithfulness.”

The college’s certificate program will be a continuing education component that attempts to meet the needs of imams, Muslim community leaders and other potential leaders among Muslims, particularly in the area of chaplaincy and pastoral care. No academic degree will be required. The program will focus on such areas as Muslims in Canada, Islamic law, interfaith relations, and professional counseling.

But that’s not all. The college hopes to quickly move to a Muslim track within the Master of Pastoral Studies Program. This will be a two year full-time program involving 20 courses, with possible specialization in one of three areas: social service orientation, counseling or preaching. The track would likely involve courses in the Qur’an, the history and theological tradition of Islam, Islamic law, and interfaith dialogue.

Also moving quickly forward is a plan to have a five-year, full-time teaching contract for a professor who focuses on Muslim (Islamic) studies beginning in the fall of 2010. Fundraising for the position is already underway. Finally, the college’s goals include the eventual creation of a new Centre for Islamic Studies, housed at Emmanuel.

“If, as Christians, we don’t have serious and meaningful engagements with other religions of the world, then our relevance is lost,” summarized Toulouse. “Religious leaders need to lead the way in establishing open channels of communication and understanding if religion is going to play an important role in the world of tomorrow.”

Toulouse may be a long way from the Texas prairie, but he appears to be the right person at this time to lead Emmanuel College in Canada into new directions for its future. To read more about Emmanuel College, visit:

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