BU Today

Campus Life

Robert Neville on the congregation and community

University chaplain to step down June 30

Rev. Robert C. Neville will preach his last sermon at Marsh Plaza on Sunday, June 25.

Rev. Robert C. Neville taught philosophy at Fordham University and at SUNY Stony Brook before coming to Boston University in the fall of 1987, and he knew immediately that the University was a good fit. “I’m a Methodist,” he says, “and this is the country’s first Methodist college.”

Neville, 67, who first served as the chairman of the College of Arts and Sciences department of religion and the director of the Graduate School’s Division of Religious and Theological Studies, became dean of the School of Theology in 1988. He remained dean until 2003, when he became the University chaplain and Dean of Marsh Chapel. This month he is stepping down from the chaplaincy and deanship at the end of his three-year term. He will continue to lead BU’s Danielsen Institute for Pastoral Counseling and to teach at STH. The new Dean of Marsh Chapel and University chaplain will be Rev. Robert Allan Hill, who gives his first sermon on Sunday, July 2.

Neville will preach his last sermon at Marsh Chapel on Sunday, June 25. He discussed religious life at BU with BU Today.

BU Today: What were your first impressions of religion at Boston University?

Neville: Religion was something that was taken very seriously here. My first day here, I stopped in the chapel on my way to my office and saw they were having a service at eight in the morning. The fact that it was respectable to be religious was important — I think the religious heritage of Boston University is alive and well. I think probably very few students and faculty understand the history, but in fact its respect for religion is institutionalized.

I’m very much committed to the intellectual practice of religion, and that means all the resources that the University has ought to be brought to bear on it. When I became dean of the School of Theology, a great many of the faculty had no intellectual ambitions, and they didn’t encourage the students to work very hard. All the classes were at an introductory level; there were no prerequisites. One of the things I did early on in the school was to emphasize the complexity and the depth of religious knowledge.

The goal was to raise the standards for theological education. I think that has happened — my chief worry now is that our best faculty will be hired away by other universities. That’s a good problem to have.

How is being a university chaplain different from having a community congregation?

It’s possible to conceive of the sermons as something that should make undergraduates feel comfortable and deal with things like the stress of exams — I have interpreted the pulpit as the University’s pulpit to the world. I never have to talk down to the congregation, and they are proud of the fact that they have to figure out what I’m saying.

What does that mean for your sermons?

All through Christian history, the sermon has been a peculiar form of religious thinking. It takes the Bible as scriptures that are supposed to be spiritually meaningful and relates the Bible to people who are there, with problems. I think sermons have to be not in the language of a profession, like Bible scholarship or theology. But they don’t have to be simpleminded — they have to be complex. So I have tried to redevelop the sermon as a form of religious thinking.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on performance, and it’s possible to be a really good communicator without anything to say. When people want answers to questions like ‘What’s the nature of God?’ these are questions that ought to be so regularly discussed from the pulpit that over time the congregation is at home with the complexity of these problems.

This is the first time that I’ve had a church job where I preach at the same place every week, and to have the privilege of not having to explain everything from the beginning each week is great.

How has the congregation changed during your time here?

In the late 1980s, that was a time before so many students were representing the evangelical right, and we now have a great many student groups representing that. So that’s a fairly significant change. I would say one-third of the congregation on Sunday morning in Marsh Chapel during the school year is African and African-American and a fairly large number are Asian, so it’s a highly diverse congregation. We’ve got great music, and people like to be challenged. But while it’s been increasingly diverse, it was never entirely white.

And I’m told we have a 25,000-person listening audience at WBUR — I hope it’s true. We get lots of response from the virtual congregation, many of whom would never come to church. But they listen, for the music and for having an intelligent discussion of religious and social issues. I think that’s a very important ministry. We get people from Bangladesh, soldiers in Iraq.

What do you think BU’s congregation needs?

I think the chaplain needs to be a younger person, who’s going to be here for 10 to 15 years. I also think we need to rethink the role of the chaplain, about how to get undergraduates involved. We also need a building campaign — Marsh Chapel is not really wheelchair-accessible.

The new chaplain, Robert Allan Hill, is a very good preacher — I don’t know that the city has a preacher as good as he is. I think he will continue to build the congregation and get them more involved in the management of the chapel. The chapel is not like a community church — Marsh is like a school at the University. But the chapel could do more if the congregation understood its stewardship role.

I also think that he wants to reach out to more undergraduate and graduate students. Those are very different constituencies — merely offering programs that are different enough is not enough to bring people in. You have to show undergraduate and graduate students that their lives will be improved by getting involved in chapel activities.

One of the things we do is to coordinate all the religious life on campus — Muslim students have a space in the student union, the Buddhist and Hindu groups use Marsh Chapel, there’s a Wiccan group that uses space outside Marsh Chapel. There’s a lot of religious life on campus that doesn’t get noticed, because to pray, you don’t need a permit or a group or to be in a sacred space.