In an April 6 public ceremony at neighboring RiversideChurch in Manhattan, Hough recommitted the seminary to its longtradition of leadership among America's progressive Protestant churches,sounding themes of piety, ecumenism and the need to battle economicpoverty.
"At certain times in its history, Union was arguably the mostimportant Protestant theological seminary in the entire world," Houghsaid at his formal installation. "Today, it remains a leadingtheological school, one whose future is important for the future ofprogressive Christianity and ecumenical Protestantism everywhere."
Founded in 1836 by a group of liberal Presbyterians, Union quicklyestablished itself as an institution that ran counter to Protestantorthodoxy of the day. In the late 1890s, Union formally severed its tieswith the Presbyterian Church after the school refused to fire thebiblical scholar Charles Briggs under pressure from conservatives angrywith Briggs' non-literal interpretation of the Bible.
In the mid-20th century, Union became synonymous with the teachingof two noted liberals, the American ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr and theGerman theologian Paul Tillich. Union is now known as a center for theteaching of black and feminist theologies, and among its faculty membersis the prominent black theologian James Cone.
While Union cherishes its independence from any church ordenomination, the school's reputation as a theological gadfly hasexacted something of a price: The school has long faced financialdifficulties, and it is no secret that Hough came to Union in partbecause of his reputation as a solid, and enthusiastic, fund-raiser.
In fact, the 65-year-old Hough, a former dean and professor ofethics at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.,was making plans to retire from a career as a teacher and seminaryadministrator when he was courted by Union. Hough reportedly acceptedthe president's position because he valued Union's historic importanceto American Protestantism and its churches.
Hough has actually been president of Union since the start of thecurrent academic year. Hough's immediate predecessors as president wereHolland Hendrix, a New Testament scholar, and Donald Shriver, anethicist. Mary McNamara, a seminary executive vice president, served asinterim president in the year prior to Hough's arrival.
In his inaugural address, Hough, an ordained minister of the UnitedChurch of Christ (UCC), took note of the school's problems, saying Unionmust "deal forthrightly and creatively with the improvement of itsfinancial condition."
But he also struck a decidedly hopeful tone, saying the school'sfuture will depend on how well it meets the challenges facingprogressive Christianity.
These challenges include the need for a new kind of spiritualformation, or what Hough called "the practice of reflective piety,"connecting "the best biblical scholarship and historical study" with thepractices of prayer and worship of Christian communities.
Hough also called for a "new Christian ecumenism" in whichChristians deepen their own religious faith by accepting the possibilityof God's revelation in other religious traditions. "The new Christianecumenism is expressed as confidence that serious and criticalconsideration of other religious traditions will make us betterChristians, better able to understand the incredible diversity in God'smove toward the world to redeem it and make us whole."
Hough also said the "central moral problem" facing Christians of the21st century "must be the economic, political and social injustices thatperpetuate poverty."
"Here in the United States alone, the growing disparity between therich and the poor should evoke moral outrage from those who carry thename of Christian," he said, adding that theological education "shouldinclude the kind of instruction that engages students in the study ofthe problem of poverty as a central element in the practice of piety andthe moral problem of our age."
Hough's desire to reaffirm Union's ties with churches was evident inthe colorful ceremony that included drummers, dancers and giant puppetsand was held at Riverside, an interdenominational and interracial churchlong known for its social activism. The installation included theparticipation of representatives of some 70 churches, denominations andeducational institutions from New York and elsewhere in the UnitedStates.
Among those attending were the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, theformer Yale University chaplain and former senior pastor at RiversideChurch; the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of theNational Council of Churches; and the Rev. Calvin Butts III, seniorpastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.
In welcoming statements, Butts and Campbell noted the continuedimportance Union has to New York City. "We look to you, Joe, as aneighbor, and to speak out on the inequities in the city," saidCampbell.
Hough earned his bachelor of divinity degree from Yale DivinitySchool and master's and doctoral degrees from Yale University. Prior toworking at Vanderbilt, Hough served as faculty member and dean of theClaremont Graduate School in California.