Photo courtesy of Paul Schutz/The Beecken Center

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Episcopalians like to say they do not check their brains at the church door. To that end, a unique camp is making sure their high school-aged children learn to do likewise, perhaps with even more rigor than their parents.

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Now in its fourth year, SUMMA Student Theological Debate Society at the University of the South will bring as many as 48 students together July 18-26 for training in classic debating skills and the Christian theological tradition. They will learn as much about how to engage a debate partner — that is, as a friend worthy of honor and respect — as they will about persuasiveness on such issues as same-sex marriage or euthanasia.

“The point wasn’t to have an argument about these subjects, but to gain a greater understanding of both sides,” said Hailey Strother, who attended SUMMA twice during high school and is now returning as a camp counselor.

In certain respects, SUMMA bears a familial resemblance to other faith-based camps. These campers in grades 9-12 gather regularly for prayer, and they burn off energy in bonding activities from soccer to basketball and bowling.

But their experience diverges from the Christian camp norm as soon as the focus turns to the classic disciplines of logic, rhetoric, and the art of arguing both sides of a theological or ethical proposition.

SUMMA grew out of the Institute for Theological Studies at St. Margaret’s in Little Rock. It was the brainchild of the Very Rev. Christoph Keller III, now dean of Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock.

He conceived of it as a way to enrich the lives of teenagers, who often drift away from church after middle school as they search for intellectual challenge and integrity. SUMMA is now a program of the Sewanee School of Theology’s Beecken Center.

“The goal was to offer them a more thoughtful faith and a more faithful way of thinking about the other things that they’re studying in school,” Keller said.

At SUMMA, students hear lectures to help frame their approaches to propositional questions. Among the propositions debated in past years: “Capital punishment is morally justified” and “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” They break into teams, practice newly learned techniques for debate preparation, and compete in a tournament. A $1,000 SUMMA scholarship is awarded to the student who best exemplifies speaking truth in love and debating with skill and intellectual distinction.

Because theological debate camp is not commonly on parents’ radar screens, SUMMA has ramped up recruitment efforts this year with help from a $600,000 Lilly Endowment grant. The camp fee of $750 includes materials, room, and board. Scholarships are available for those with financial need. The deadline to apply for this year’s session is June 30.

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