Scholastic Ecumenism: An Invitation to Episcopal Schools

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By David Hein

In today’s world, all Anglican and Episcopal primary and secondary schools must negotiate the inclines, dips, and curves of multilane academic highways. Families have many options to choose from: public charter schools, schools focused on the arts or science and technology, classical academies, traditional boarding schools, historic day schools, evangelical Christian schools, homeschooling, Roman Catholic schools, Quaker schools, and others. Parents (a school’s customers) avidly seek the largest return on their investment on behalf of their children (a school’s clients).

The competition is considerable; all schools want to flourish. But how to discover the path to prosperity? One good answer may lie along a route marked by those who have thought about the aims and approaches of ecumenism.

The species of ecumenism most of us know strives toward agreements between theologically aligned communions on such matters as baptism, justification, the Lord’s Supper, and the historic episcopate. This approach typically has as its ultimate aim settling differences of faith and polity to achieve full communion.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles spoke of an appealing alternative — or complement — to this convergence model: receptive ecumenism, which does not seek full communion or even agreement (see “Saving Ecumenism from Itself,” First Things, December 2007). Rather, its aim is internal reform: listening to and learning from another ecclesial body so that positive change — spiritual renewal — can occur within one’s church.

With Cardinal Dulles’s encouragement, I took on the challenge of adopting his approach by suggesting for Anglicans the strange possibility of ecumenical engagement with the Old Order Amish — a strange proposal because these Anabaptists do not participate in interchurch dialogues at all (“Radical Ecumenism,” Sewanee Theological Review, Pentecost 2008).

Surprisingly, Amish and Anglicans do have some significant beliefs and practices in common. In any event, my view was that an old establishment denomination, representing church-type Christianity, stood to learn much in general about the use of the created order and the meaning of success, and much in particular about enacting one’s faith and forgiving others, from this distinctive embodiment of sect-type Christianity.

In a similar fashion, today’s Anglican or Episcopal school leaders might benefit from developments beyond their schools. For example, many schools represent their understanding of mission through the head of school’s public statements and general letters to the larger community from leading administrators such as the dean of students and the assistant head for academics.

What is usually missing is the involvement of all faculty members in interpreting their school’s ethos through thoughtful comments on their work and goals. For instance, an upper-school classics instructor might discuss how his teaching of Plutarch’s Lives offers a compelling story- and character-driven way to study history.

That’s what you’ll find at the Heights, a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Potomac, Maryland, near the nation’s capital. In an interview on the school’s podcast, Tom Cox, a veteran humanities teacher, discussed how “boys come alive” when they confront the difficulties faced by great leaders, such as Cicero, and discover the influence these figures had on our country’s founders. Through the examples of these heroes, students learn about human beings who were flawed but still inspiring, and grapple with the challenges faced and the choices made by persons who showed virtue amid their struggles.

By means of this teacher’s thoughtful take on his work — his insights into “why and how we teach Plutarch” — listeners broaden their understanding of the Heights, its goals, and its practices. Experiencing a purposeful academic enterprise, they discern what this school is attempting to achieve in the education of “young men fully alive in the liberal-arts tradition.”

Any academic establishment — but especially traditional church schools in harmony with the character and aims of the Heights — could learn a great deal by going to school on what this particular institution has accomplished through Heights Forum (, an assemblage of podcasts, videos, and articles that reveal a coherent grasp of mission all the way through the school. Every teacher is reflective and stimulating in describing decisions and activities in response to the school’s vocation. Everyone — not just the head of school and the top leaders — manifests mission; it percolates through the entire enterprise.

More broadly, classical Christian schools (CCSs) offer much that the rest of us should assess carefully with an eye to reforming our enterprises. In fascinating ways, the CCS movement is stirring the educational pot. In the spirit of receptive ecumenism, we in Anglican or Episcopal schools should be open to learning from those schools. We may not want to unite with them, but we do not want to be left behind by them, either. We need to keep scanning the horizon for institutional practices that not only dovetail with our convictions but also flesh out our principles in ways we might have overlooked. Certainly, CCSs have borrowed from Anglicans: they love the works of Dorothy L. Sayers (paying close attention to The Lost Tools of Learning) and C.S. Lewis (particularly The Abolition of Man).

Two features of the CCS program are worth immediate attention: integration and virtues. The CCS literature notes that academic subjects are too separated — not only in the state schools, but in independent schools as well. Each discipline is a smokestack, and the religion program occurs almost exclusively in chapel, apart from the academic life of the school, or in one theology class apart from the other classes.

“The basis of contemporary education is that truth is individualized and compartmentalized,” Jackson Yenor writes for the Association of Classical Christian Schools (see “‘English Class’ vs. ‘The Trivium’”). “The Trivium as practiced in classical Christian education emphasizes writing, reading, logic, and speaking across all subjects.” Yenor comments on the distance between the regular academic subjects at most independent schools and any theological convictions the school has: “Other subjects are seen as neutral or disconnected” from faith and ethics.

That’s one question we should be open to considering: about the integration in church schools between, in effect, church and school.

And second: The CCSs, with their classical and Christian commitments, heavily emphasize the virtues, sharply distinguishing them from merely subjective values, especially the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. A leading text for CCS educators is The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (3rd ed., 2021). Its authors see the school as “a community of belief and practice that is striving toward virtue.” Anglican schools, heirs of a tradition that has historically stressed the will and the conscience, could be much more focused and intentional about teaching the virtues.

Some examples:

Language and literature: Writers must try to perceive with others’ eyes, according to differing perspectives. Therefore, writing requires a temporary “unselfing of the self,” in Evelyn Underhill’s phrase; it is a work of the moral imagination. If curious readers seek material on “writing and ethics” on the web, they will find many sources on inclusive language and avoiding the charge of plagiarism, but almost nothing on the virtues.

Fortitude and perseverance are crucial to good writing. Why not explicitly name and talk about these virtues in class? If we do, then students will become more aware of themselves as moral actors, responsible selves, and they will become better writers.

The virtue of temperance is essential, too. But students are not going to think about temperance unless we discuss what it means. Temperance, patience, and humility are not popular virtues today, as they are eclipsed by creativity, self-assertion, health, personal happiness, and some vague notions of social justice.

History: Courage is a constant element in both political and military history, as well as in social history — think of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and others. Why not raise this subject more directly? Infusing virtues in the curriculum will add an intellectual and moral depth to each course. Distinguish courage from both cowardice and rashness. Analyze its relationship to prudence and justice. Discuss a military conflict in relation to just-war theory. When, if ever, does justice require fighting to prevent injustice to the innocent? What is the role of prudence in looking after the national interest? How does a nation avoid the sin of pride — arrogant self-righteousness — in its foreign policy? How did the Marshall Plan balance increasing freedom and justice for other nations with securing U.S. strategic priorities? Can nations be morally selfless?

Natural sciences: Is there room for one class during the term that is interdisciplinary, which brings in a guest conversationalist on the topic of scientific discoveries and natural phenomena in light of the virtue of faith? What is the relation between Darwinian evolution and divine creation? Is selfishness hardwired in our genes? Where is God in a tsunami? How is the suffering of innocent children a problem for theodicy, for comprehending natural evil in the face of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator?

The path to academic flourishing requires sharing the road. Be attentive to the ways in which other educational communities, different from ours, are shaking things up and presenting some intriguing possibilities. On matters of faith and ethics, we should be clear about what Lewis called the Tao, the Way, or what CCS and others call the paideia, an education toward a particular way of life. Be explicit about the virtues we’re committed to. Make thinking about them a school priority; relax the disciplinary boundaries. Explore these habits of moral and spiritual excellence across the community.

Be both wise and humble: openly practice scholastic ecumenism. The customers will notice, and the clients will benefit.

David Hein is a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and serves as a trustee of Saint James School in Maryland.


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