The Rev. Emery Percell ’56 has spent a lifetime blurring the line between liberal arts education and religious exploration.
Percell, who worked for 47 years as a Methodist pastor, earlier leaned toward atheism as an undergrad. But professors Lloyd Worner ’42 and Glenn Gray made it their business to keep him from reaching a comfortable plateau of thought, either in religion or the classic issues of ethics and epistemology they studied together.
Instead, they told him to ask questions. “They encouraged me to keep following my visions,” Percell says.
He did. After graduation, he headed north to a master’s program at the University of Denver’s Illif School of Theology and later earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago.
He was steering toward a career in teaching, possibly back at Illif, but realized that “my calling was in a local church,” he says.
Until 2004, Percell served at six churches in northern Illinois using a pastoral style that will sound familiar to CC alumni: It centered on asking questions.
“People like to think,” he says. “Farmers, businessmen — once they came to realize they could think, that became an exciting journey for them. I want people to wrestle with the big questions in their lives, and I’m here to help them. I’m not here to tell them what to believe. I’m here to help them find their way.”
Although he objected to the mandatory retirement rules of the church, Percell retired in 2004 from ministry — but he couldn’t stay away from the teaching business. These days, Percell, now 73, asks questions again, as interim academic dean of the Claremont School of Theology in California.
And after that: “I’m retired — so who knows?”