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Scandalum magnum

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“Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to be seen by others.”

— Jesus (Matt. 6:5)

Here is an interesting activity: go to the Episcopal Church Library search page and enter the phrase “honorary doctorate.” Many links appear — and they reveal much about the Episcopal Church today. The various articles and stories show us a church which loves itself, which celebrates itself, and which congratulates itself ad nauseam et ad mortem (“to sickness and to death”). This is seen nowhere more vividly than in the awarding of the honorary degree Doctor of Divinity (“D.D.”).

According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2000, p. 140; linked here, albeit with typos),

D.D. Doctor of Divinity. An honorary degree that may be awarded by a seminary to a member of the clergy or laity in recognition of significant contributions to the church. Seminaries frequently confer the degree on their alumni who are consecrated bishops.

In other words, the D.D. is not a real degree. It is a fake degree, neither earned nor reflective of other academic or pastoral accomplishments (or the lack thereof). To subvert the popular instruction concerning the confession of sin (“all may, none must, some should”), we can and do observe that when it comes to educational accolades, all may, none must, some will — and when they do, such awards will often come in spades.

Consider the following. The Presiding Bishop received two honorary doctorates in 2007 (at Seabury-Western and Seminary of the Southwest), three in 2008 (at Virginia Theological Seminary, Sewanee, and Bexley Hall), and one each in 2009 (at General Theological Seminary), 2010 (at Cuttington University), and 2011 (at Huron College). This makes a total of eight honorary doctorates received by the Presiding Bishop during her presidency. What is more, Jefferts Schori had already received an honorary degree in 2001 from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (she was elected and consecrated bishop earlier that year — one receives such awards for merely winning an election and consenting to a ceremony). At the very least, she has nine honorary degrees (and she may well have more, but I wearied of searching for them).

What has Jefferts Schori done to deserve such accolades? Although she has authored two small volumes of bedside inspirational reading, she has never published a work of theology. She is widely known to have brought a convicted child molester to work in her diocese, she has led the way in spending tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits against those who reject the liberal drift of the Episcopal Church (comparing her opponents with terrorists along the way), and her bizarre theology has caught the attention of the New York Times. Notably, Jefferts Schori’s many honorary degrees have come exclusively from Anglican seminaries which share her ideological bent.[1] The secular academy, it seems, has taken no notice of her.

No less incomprehensible are the awards heaped upon Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies from 2006 to 2012. She received two honorary doctorate degrees in 2009. The Episcopal News Service even ran a story on this. The first of these degrees was given by the University of the South, which granted Anderson the title Doctor of Canon Law. The second honorary doctorate was given by General Theological Seminary. What qualified her to receive two honorary doctorates in a single year (indeed, within days of each other)? The article does not tell us, but it does note that she already had two other honorary doctorates from Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, respectively.

One would like to think that Anderson would have received these awards with considerable humility; one would like to think that she would have worn these honors but lightly on her sleeve. However, Anderson took to signing her presidential letters as “Bonnie Anderson, D.D.” (See, for example, her letter of resignation.) The untrained eye would assume that Anderson had earned an actual doctorate degree in theology/divinity; on comparison, think of how some professionals advertise, such as doctors (e.g., John Doe, M.D.) and lawyers (e.g., Jane Doe, J.D.). And yet, the D.D. is not a real degree. Why use it — why sign with it — as if it were?

According to Anderson’s online biography, she was “an author of articles, writer and preacher of sermons and homilies, and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Michigan.” None of this merits a single honorary doctorate, let alone four. By writing and preaching, she did nothing more than the average parish priest; furthermore, there is also nothing unique in being an academic adjunct, as many clergy teach also on the side. (Of course, when it comes to the secular academy, there is also nothing unique in being an adjunct: nearly seventy percent of university faculty members hold non-tenure-track positions.) As with Jefferts Schori, so with Anderson: what has she done to deserve such accolades?

To sound a Nietzschean note: with idols this hollow we don’t need a hammer.

Two questions arise. First, how do honorary doctorate degrees (in this case, the D.D.) edify and build up the Church? Institutions give out honors and awards because they carry some sort of value. To borrow a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, we will call this value “symbolic capital.” The metaphor of capital is helpful because it allows us to think about things like exchange rates. As noted above, Jefferts Schori has at least nine honorary doctorate degrees from liberal Episcopal seminaries, and yet no honorary doctorates from secular universities. What does this say about the strength of the Episcopal Church’s own academic capital? In other words, what is the exchange rate on honorary doctorates between the schools of the Episcopal Church and the universities of the wider world? An economic exchange of more than 9:1 indicates profound economic disparity and education is no different.

Our second question is twofold: how does the D.D. affect the way(s) in which its recipients view themselves, and how does it affect the way(s) in which they are seen by others? A key example is Anderson’s willingness to treat her D.D. as if it were actually earned. At the very least, Anderson no longer perceived herself in a clear light for she no longer recognized her own limitations. Is this not the very essence of hubris? We are, therefore, also justified in asking whether or not most Episcopal laity recognize that the “doctorates” wielded by so many clergy — especially bishops — are entirely bogus? Far from signifying academic integrity, the signifier “D.D.” usually signifies only the absence of doctoral study in the relevant ecclesial disciplines (although, no doubt, there may be exceptions).

When adulation is mistermed “education,” we have only propaganda in its most subtle — and thus coercive — form. When honorary degrees are freely dispensed like so many pieces of meaningless paper, we must recognize that the bubble of academic inflation has truly burst. This is especially the case with doctorate degrees, which are intended to indicate the highest of academic achievements. A church which celebrates such awards is a church whose symbolic capital can be converted into nothing more than sheer nihilism — hardly an appealing standard, regardless of denomination.

Bishops do not need to be given honorary doctorates. Bishops should only be given the crosier and the pectoral cross — and they should already possess the Prayer Book, the Bible, and a humble Christian piety which preaches scandalum scandalorum, the scandal of scandals: “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). One does not need doctoral study to be a good bishop — and no one needs deceived and deceiving church leaders who flamboyantly flaunt faux credentials. Given the state of the Episcopal Church, our seminaries should ban the granting of this “degree” until the time comes when living memory can recall neither the awarding of such “honors” nor the generation which last received them.

[1] This is another topic worthy of investigation, but beyond the scope of the present article. How many honorary degrees are bestowed for purely ideological reasons? For example, in 2006, the conservative Episcopal seminary Nashotah House awarded an honorary doctorate to Robert Duncan, the conservative bishop of Pittsburgh and moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, a traditionalist group which formed in protest against the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal Church. Neither conviction nor activism should be enough to deserve such a degree.

4 Responses to “Scandalum magnum”

  1. Fr. Sam Keyes says:

    While I would be perhaps a little more cautious, Ben, with the absolute language (just because degrees are not earned does not mean they are “bogus” or “fake”; it means they are honorary), I do think you highlight a real problem. But there are very real problems that you highlight here. First is treating honorary degrees as if they were earned. Second is the inflation rate or diminishing value of such degrees. It’s one thing to say, in principle, that they are a nice idea. But are they, as they are currently used, an appropriate mechanism for the goal intended? An honorary doctorate might be a wonderful way to recognize a serious theologian who has made contributions to the Church similar to or even excelling those that we might wish for our professionally trained theologians. But this is not of course how they are normally used. Why not be more honest and simply create institutional awards that give public figures a pat on the back saying, “Hey, we’re proud of you!” (There are any number of these awards given by schools, especially to undergraduates. There is no reason they need to be degrees!) That would be more honest, and if it is less prone to delusion on the part of recipients, at least that delusion would be more self-contained.

  2. Yes, Fr. Sam, I think that you are right about my language. However, my thought – and I should have written thus – was that if these degrees are just handed out, then they aren’t really honorary but instead fake. To be honorary, their honor must be restored (seriously, no pun intended).

  3. Calvin Lane says:

    This is an interesting and important reflection, Ben. I would note that the D.D. itself is a curious phenomenon. While it has become completely honorary in the US, in the UK it is a “higher doctorate”, meaning that one must already hold the PhD and then, after writing several other reputable book-length studies, he may submit his collection of works for consideration for the DD. This is a rigorous process and the degree is certainly earned, only going to very serious academics. Moreover, we should note that doctorates in general are very new degrees, dating really from the 19th and early 20th century. While visiting Christ Church, Oxford, one of the chaplains told me (with an air of condescension) that Oxford developed the DPhil for American research students.

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