Ten Theses for Seminaries

By George Sumner

Almost half a century ago, the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Pusey Report foretold, among other things, consolidation and radical change among the denomination’s theological seminaries. Such change is finally upon us. Several schools in the United States and in Canada have closed, a number are alive in name only, and others in each country approach their demise. Several years ago I was surprised to hear that a majority of Episcopal ordinands had attended none of the established 11.

In the face of this dire climate, the Episcopal seminaries’ effort at cooperation did not touch on core tasks; similarly in 2010 in the Anglican Church of Canada, when all the stakeholders were gathered in Montreal, the life-and-death institutional issues had to be bracketed and left aside. Simultaneous with a major reordering of our parishes and dioceses, this is a turning point for theological education, but we should not expect some grand compromise or new deal. This is as it should be, since the network of schools was never planned systematically. The remedies sometimes float about as well-meaning generalizations: diversity, lay empowerment, the missional. True enough, but such themes do not get to the heart of the matter.

I offer something more modest, local, “situated,” as they say nowadays. I have served for 14 years as the principal of an Anglican theological college which, by God’s grace, has managed gradual growth, finances in the black, and a lowered median age. Still we share with all our siblings the fragility of the industry. It is said that if Moses had come down from the mountain into the Episcopal Church, he would have promulgated the Ten Suggestions. My Decalogue for seminaries is of this lighter kind.

1. Once again, the voluntary society has its moment. In Canada Anglican colleges sometimes decry their lack of support from the denomination. But it is clear that this has been a blessing; there is nothing from which we must be weaned. Like the missionary groups in the 19th century, seminaries as voluntary societies are part of the Church’s life, yet free of its matrix. They can move in its interstices. In a church becoming more diffuse, its structures more vexed, the seminary as voluntary society can be nimble.

2. Note both the collapsing roof and the open door. The Church’s reordering will mean rural parishes closing, the populace graying, etc. The seminaries need to add a theological dimension to the worry about what comes next. At the same time, we continue to see impressive young leaders walking the Canterbury Road. Bishop William Frey once said that the Church as the Body of Christ does what it knows: dying and being raised.

3. Beware of Hal. In the Church, no less than other areas of our society, we see technology’s potential and risk. While it expands our reach, it compromises the formation possible without a common life. Not a few schools have supposed that being online would save them financially, only to find this hope to be chimerical. Meanwhile, bishops worried about clergy misconduct and its liability should think hard about programs which rarely have a chance to see their future graduates.

4. Only the diversified will survive. Unless you are rich as Croesus or Virginia Seminary, you feel some pressure in this environment. Simply cleaving to our core business of training Anglican ordinands cannot suffice. The trick is finding some new endeavors that actually attract revenue rather than expend it, as well as making sure that the new work is consonant with the nature and mission of the school: for us this has meant students from other evangelical churches and programs like a mission-related master’s degree in urban and international development. Coherence matters, for many secular companies have foundered on diversification into businesses about which they knew nothing.

5. Residence-based schools are called to a ministry of encouragement. It is from the center in its traditional formational work that schools should branch out into endeavors like online offerings, workshops for laypeople, programs designed for indigenous leaders, and international partnerships. Schools should follow the Rawlsian rule-of-thumb that resources are justified by the wider good they do. One might compare the calling of the cathedral.

6. The watchword of the day is catechesis. If indeed we are moving to the outskirts of society, and the culture exerts pressures on us, and we need urgently to retain our own young, and yet others are coming to Anglicanism, then we need future shepherds who can catechize, disciple, and encourage formation. After a generation of talk about the centrality of baptism, we need to do the hard work that is the condition for its possibility.

7. Missionary priests need more formation, not less. We live in a changed situation in which our graduates must think of themselves as missionaries to the culture. But it would be a mistake to use this as a pretext for abandoning the more intensive training in community. The Jesuits were formed for more than a decade before they were sent out in their creatively contextualized ministries! Schools must and should show some flex in allowing on-site options, but only to launch or to supplement the experience.

8. The wise scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven brings gifts old and new. The conservative side of the aisle has its own diversity, for which we should be seedbeds. Various young students want at once the most avant-garde Fresh Expression, ceremonial, the traditional prayer book, the new monasticism, green evangelicalism, and charismata. If the garden is fenced doctrinally, let many flowers bloom.

9. What do summer camps, youth ministry, and campus ministries have in common? They often, by the Holy Spirit, display young, devout, thoughtful vocations. Real recruiting goes to the species’ natural habitat. On this count, evangelicals have an advantage, which is one more reason why our liberal church still needs its conservatives.

10. The renewal we seek must be ecumenical and global. The task of re-evangelization faces all churches, and many of our young leaders are not “womb-to-tombers.” Furthermore, the Coming Anglicanism has its center of spiritual gravity in the Global South. In spite of our financial constraints, we need to move beyond the occasional summer internship to making fellowship with, for example, our African and Asian brothers and sisters a truly essential part of our life. 

The Rev. George Sumner is principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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