Education that Crosses Divides

By the Rev. Mark Michael

The future of theological education in the Episcopal Church should be marked by robust evangelism, serious engagement with orthodoxy, and a courageous tenderness, according to panelists at a gathering of seminary leaders convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary’s dean and president, hosted the forum on Oct. 12 as part of the celebration of Immanuel Chapel’s consecration. Deans, faculty, and students from eight of the Episcopal Church’s ten seminaries attended the meeting, as well as representatives from two seminaries affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America.

The next day, Archbishop Justin Welby preached at the consecration of the chapel. Throughout his visit the archbishop stressed a theme of reconciliation.

Three younger faculty members from Episcopal seminaries presented papers reflecting on what their students are showing them about future trends and needs for ministerial formation. Christopher Wells of The Living Church moderated an open discussion and Archbishop Welby offered closing comments.

The Episcopal Church has remained an inward-looking, denominational “halfway house” for far too long, said the Rev. Jason Fout, associate professor of Anglican theology at Bexley Seabury. The church needs to move past its legacy of internecine conflict and prepare for the post-denominational future, “offering the world a credible witness to Jesus Christ.” He quoted the words emblazoned over the doors of Immanuel Chapel: “‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel’: that’s what the world needs, that’s what we all need.”

Dr. Donyelle McCray, an assistant professor of homiletics and director of multicultural ministry at VTS, called for the church to adopt a “spirituality of risk,” embracing uncertainty and identifying with the weak and despised. “A world with a longing for order and authority is giving way to a world with a longing for deep tenderness,” McCray said. Future Christian leaders will need to negotiate power dynamics carefully and to appeal to “an influence that comes from being devout.” McCray sees Mary as an icon for this risky yet tender stance: “What kind of life might God breathe into the world through a church of Marys, a church whose gift to the world is a mighty tenderness?”

Wesley Hill, assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, noted that the current generation of students is fascinated by historic Christian orthodoxy and the ways it can be used as a resource for creative initiatives in mission and work for justice and peace. “They don’t understand orthodoxy as an impediment or an encumbrance, but a lens through which to glimpse fresh possibilities.”

Hill also discussed the creative possibilities arising from his seminary’s engagement with students from across the Episcopal Church- ACNA divide. “Our experience of praying together is challenging us to reach across other kinds of impaired communion,” he said.

The Rev. David Marshall, director of Duke Divinity School’s Anglican Episcopal House of Studies, noted a similar “grace and maturity across Anglican-Episcopal lines, which is an emerging resource for the wider church. [Students] are searching after a wider Anglican identity, a passionate balance.”

Christopher Wood, a senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, commented on the love and respect his student body showed in the midst of a visit by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori: “When you get to know people, it’s a lot harder to be angry with them.”

The challenges of the future will require leaders that have been well formed. “It’s no time to go cheap on theological education,” said the Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee. The residential seminary experience, Alexander added, forms people into community and equips them to form communities, a task that will be increasingly difficult but crucial to the church’s future.

General Theological Seminary student Tommie Watkins acknowledged that this task often involves crossing cultural divides and “engaging with the isms that are so prominent in America.” He noted that his participation in General’s “Wisdom Year,” which includes an intensive parish-based internship, is helping him learn strategies for responding to these challenges.

Archbishop Welby said that the challenges of the moment remind us that “a church that wants to live must be willing to die, and when we seek our own preservation, we doom ourselves.” He expressed concern about the ways in which some kinds of ministerial training seem to devalue theology, and feared that the church sometimes discourages those with gifts for personal evangelism, which will be deeply needed in the coming generation. “Young people don’t know or care what denomination they belong to,” he said, “but they want to find Jesus Christ.”

Prayer and spiritual formation also need to have a central role in ministerial training, Welby said. “We need to restore the connectedness between the religious life and theological education.” He observed that the Community of St. Anselm, a religious order for young people recently launched at Lambeth Palace, is already having a powerful and energizing effect on the way business is conducted at the heart of the Anglican Communion’s life.

Welby called for deeper attention to the scandal of Church division, and noted that he had invited David Porter, the Anglican Communion’s canon for reconciliation, to be present at the cross-denominational gathering. “How disconnected we are,” he lamented. At Lambeth Palace, “we pray every day to experience the suffering caused by the division of the Church,” a petition that he said often brings community members to tears. “Disunity within our churches tears us to pieces.”

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