New Woodsworth chair appointed

May 12, 2005, vol. 33, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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The appointment of Winnipeg professor Eleanor Stebner as Simon Fraser University's newest James Shaver Woodsworth chair holder will help meet a growing demand for scholars schooled in religious studies.

“There is a huge demand for undergraduate courses in religion,” says Stephen Duguid, chair of SFU's humanities department and co-chair of the Woodsworth endowed chair search committee. “As there is no department of religious studies, professor Stebner's appointment will bring a whole new perspective to religious instruction in humanities.”

Newly ensconced in her SFU office, Stebner was an associate professor of theology and church history at the University of Winnipeg. She researches North American Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries, the settlement (grassroots community building) and social gospel movements, and religious and social institutions. An ordained minister born in Edmonton and brought up in the Moravian church, Stebner has authored several published works, including The Women of Hull House: A Study of Spirituality, Vocation and Friendship.

Duguid calls Stebner a scholar in the tradition of Woodsworth. The late member of Parliament and the clergy was known as much for his involvement in social reform leading to many of Canada's public benefits as he was for his speeches and sermons.

As Woodsworth did, Stebner applies her academic and religious schooling to fostering social betterment and resolving ethical issues that are at the juncture of social, political and religious beliefs.

She relishes filling the Woodsworth chair at a time when debate over high profile issues such as same sex marriage, euthanasia and terrorism, underscore the combustibility of religion, sociology and politics when they interact.

“How do you get people of religious faith and people of no religious faith to work out a way of living together and cherishing commonalities that improve society? This is one of the great challenges of the 21st century,” says Stebner.

“Religion has a tremendous impact on how our society evolves. The rise of fundamentalism is one example. One of the goals of this kind of chair is to uphold those aspects of religion that are life giving by applying the lens of self-analysis to societal problems.”

As well as working as a minister in Indiana and Wisconsin, Stebner has worked on behalf of sex trade workers, the poor, the homeless and aboriginals.

Stebner's appointment to the Woodsworth chair is renewable every five years. It comes with a tenured associate professor position in the humanities department.

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