Mary Ann Tolbert’s path to PSR began in Richmond, VA, where she was born to parents who had met while they were teaching in the mining town of Van, West Virginia. Her father, born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, never had much money and urged upon the three children—Mary has two brothers—that education was their best way out of poverty. Mary and her brothers all have PhD degrees.
The family was Southern Baptist, her father a long-time deacon and her mother very active in the First Baptist Church in Richmond. Is she a Baptist today? “What?,” she responds in amazement. “Of course!” As a high school student, she played a role in helping to integrate the church, giving a speech in favor and being quoted in the newspaper the next day. Her church did finally integrate, but she saw many of her former Sunday School teachers and other church figures stand up in opposition, and the experience caused a rift in her feelings for the church.
Mary went to Wake Forest University, a Southern Baptist school at the time. “What began to heal that rift was the academic study of religion,” she says. “I began to look historically at religion and to see all of the different rifts that have happened in Christianity through the ages, from the biblical period on. That gave me some perspective on the experience I had gone through in my local church.”
Tolbert was active in the peace movement in college and upon graduating took a job with the American Red Cross as a hospital case worker at Valley Forge Army Hospital. Concluding that an academic life was more suited to her gifts, she returned to school, earning a master’s in English literature at the University of Virginia. She specialized in medieval English literature and literary theory, which she says has served her well in her academic religious writing. She earned both a master’s and doctorate in biblical studies at the University of Chicago.
Tolbert was fascinated by the interpretation of texts and by scholarly questions and writing. “It never occurred to me that I was going to make my living through teaching,” she recalls. “I remember walking to my first teaching job, at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, thinking to myself: Gee, I hope I like this!”
She did, even though she was the first woman ever hired there—“an interesting experience I would never wish on anybody.” Four years later, in 1981, she was hired by the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University to teach New Testament and early Christianity. She was there for 13 years.
“Vanderbilt is a wonderful school, and I think I would still be there except somewhere I’d gotten the idea of starting a center for LGBT people,” she says. “Many schools had centers for ethnic and racial groups, but none had a center focused on the issue of sexuality.” Tolbert began to look around to see if there was any place in the country that would build a center for LGBT issues. “The only possible places I could see were Chicago Theological Seminary, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and Pacific School of Religion.”
As it happened, at this time PSR was in need of a senior scholar in New Testament. Tolbert was picked to come here in 1994 as the George H. Atkinson Professor of Biblical Studies. She arrived at the end of a period of difficulties at PSR, and she served on the search committee that brought Bill McKinney to the presidency in 1996. “Bill did a really good job of bringing the faculty and the board back together and healing some of the rifts,” she says.
Tolbert, McKinney, board member (and later chair) Scott Hafner, and others began to hold focus group meetings among alums, students, and friends in order to advance the cause of doing something at PSR for the LGBT community. Out of this conversation came the idea for what became the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. CLGS opened its doors in 2000, with Mary Tolbert as executive director.
“I have spent my time at PSR prior to this year focusing on my teaching and doctoral program work and on the birth and growth of CLGS,” she says. “That’s been my contribution to PSR, and more broadly to the larger church.” Asked to sum up her thoughts about the impact of CLGS, which was the first such center at a seminary, Tolbert pauses and says: “I think the center has been a remarkable witness to people who desperately needed it, a bearer of the message that God loves all of God’s children, not just certain people ‘pure’ enough to be part of the family of the children of God. We are all loved. And the center has been able to spread that word across the country.
“I’m firmly of the belief that the center has saved lives, that young people who might have committed suicide or gone off into drugs or other destructive behaviors, did not do so because of the center’s work. One life is of incalculable value. And I think the center has actually performed that saving service on a daily basis.”
Reflecting on her decision to become dean, Tolbert says: “PSR is not only the birthplace of CLGS—where I have spent a lot of my lifeblood and energy over the past decade—it’s also one of the few progressive voices in the country for Christianity. And it worries me profoundly that if something happens to PSR’s voice, then the progressive voice in this country is going to be greatly diminished. That’s not good for the country, it’s not good for LGBT people, it’s not good for racial-ethnic minorities, or for any other group if this progressive voice is silenced.”
Tolbert is keenly aware of the decades-long decline of Protestantism, lately affecting conservative as well as liberal denominations, and knows that new thinking is necessary. ”Seminaries have to retool,”she says. ”This doesn’t mean doing away with the residential program; it means adding other programs to it, other ways of presenting the perspective and the education that you have to provide. This is going to happen, at PSR and all other seminaries, eventually. The current financial crisis means that we have to speed up the retooling process.”
The key question, she says, is: “How can we provide quality theological education in ways that are accessible to the largest number of students who seek it? There are people all over the country who would like a progressive Christian education but can’t come to Berkeley to study for three years. How do we accommodate them? There’s online learning; there’s distance or asynchronous learning, where the teacher makes material available and students can reach it at different times. There are new media—Facebook and Twitter, all kinds of things the next generation is using but we’re only beginning to use. And if that group is lost, a whole generation of leaders for progressive Christianity is lost.
“Furthermore, I think there are significant issues around racial justice in the fact that we don’t offer many night courses or a degree that one can take online, for people of limited economic means. What does it mean about our mission of dismantling racism and promoting economic justice when a certain economic class is not being well served by PSR? “
Tolbert says that as dean she looks forward to helping the faculty come to some decisions about the kinds of programs PSR offers and how best to offer them. “I’d like to have the faculty begin to think through some of these things and perhaps institute some changes to meet these goals. Schools don’t move fast about anything. But I believe there is some pressure on all of us to begin making movements soon.”