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Explaining Episcopal Identity

By Barbara Talcott

There was a time not so long ago when the vast majority of students at my school (St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass.) were church-attending Episcopalians. Thus there was really no need to explain, either to families or faculty, what it meant to be an Episcopal school. Those times are past. I now teach at a wonderful, vibrant school that is about 12 percent Episcopal in its families and far less than that in its faculty. (I will not venture a guess about how many of these self-identified Episcopalians regularly attend church.)

So it is no surprise that I, like so many of my fellow chaplains, was charged with explaining our Episcopal identity to people for whom that is an entirely foreign concept. But how do I, cradle Episcopalian, find my way into this? There are at least three layers of identity that distinguish us from other schools available to our families:

St. Mark’s differs from secular schools in that it is religious.

St. Mark’s differs from other religious schools in that it is Christian.

St. Mark’s differs from other Christian schools in that it is Episcopal.

Within each of these layers of identity are numerous possible distinguishing factors, but I limited myself to three to cover the entire distance between secular and Episcopal. It was not an easy task, and it took a long time. First, I had to really know the school, its history, its current reality, and all of its major constituencies; that took a number of years of lived experience. Then I had to engage enough interest to create a collaborative process that would reflect a larger perspective than mine. And finally, I had to slowly introduce, test, tweak, and refine our work by introducing it to administration, faculty, staff, trustees, parents, alumni and students, while listening carefully to their reflections and reactions (this process continues).

It is my hope that all the time spent in gestation will create a more enduring description than if I had taken on this challenge in my first few naïve years at St. Mark’s, when I had a seminary understanding of what it means to be an Episcopalian and little to no understanding of what it means to be St. Mark’s School. The process and its result have benefitted from the head of school and I having a relatively long (almost 10-year), highly collaborative, and overlapping tenure.

Like a school’s mission and motto, a school’s stated relationship to its Episcopal identity should be something that outlasts many a strategic direction, many an initiative, many a chaplaincy, many an administration. Being religious, Christian, and Episcopal is not tactical or even strategic. Ideally, it should define a school’s values and rest at or very near a school’s core. It should resonate immediately with every part of a school’s constituency, and yet remain as timeless as Scripture in its ability to show a path and set a course for the work of the school. That is an ideal I approached with considerable trepidation.

We settled on three markers of identity. They did, indeed, end up being best expressed as guiding values for our school, and each has one or more related practices that are alive and well in our school’s programming. No doubt they have engendered other practices in the school’s past and will engender and support a variety of new initiatives and practices in the school’s future. Practices come and go; religious values, ideally, do not. A brief description of how they were arrived at is included after each value, and you will see that they come from all three layers of our identity as an Episcopal school.

1. We value time for spiritual reflection and the intentional teaching of wisdom, compassion, and humility.

These are fundamental Christian values, common to all Christian traditions. They are also shared by Islam, Judaism, and many other religions.

2. We value life in common, believing it is strengthened by honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference.

This can be considered distinctively Anglican, as the Church of England expressed a compromise position in 16th-century England, compared with other religious confessions of the time, preserving peace, unity, and commonality of practice, if not belief. It is worth noting that despite disagreement, the Anglican Communion has not split apart — at least not yet — over the treatment of divorce, women’s ordination, gay ordination, or gay marriage. For better or worse (not everyone is comfortable with it), accommodation of difference is a central value of Anglican and Episcopal piety.

3. We value human reason used critically in the pursuit of knowledge.

As a development of Renaissance humanism, the Anglican tradition holds humanity and human reason in unusually high regard among Christian denominations. This explains why there are so many Anglican and Episcopal schools enthusiastically teaching the secular sciences and critical thinking, and rejecting religious and other indoctrination.

As I have introduced these three values to our various constituencies, I have found it helpful to ask people whether, in their experience of St Mark’s, they have had reason to see these as lived values at our school. Do they have any evidence that these values are guiding our behavior? To what extent is each of these better described as aspirational? And which of these values is the most difficult, or the easiest, for them to model? The faculty and staff have been intrigued by what they have learned about the Episcopal tradition and how it bears on our work. Much fruitful discussion has resulted, and I hope it always will.

At this point, the values are available in printed form in our chapel, admissions office, advancement office, and other departments in the school. Our constituencies can look to them to understand the why behind a lot of what we do, and our administration routinely refers to them as it celebrates our past, supports our present, and plans our future programming.

No one knows more clearly than I do that, with three levels of difference, there were many other values that could have been emphasized instead. Had my school been different, had I been a different chaplain, had there been a different head of school, this could have ended up in a different place. But putting words together about something that was for many years simply assumed has helped to center us, not only across the current reality of our school, but also across the school’s 150-year history and into its future.

The Rev. Barbara Talcott is head chaplain and chair of the religion department at St. Mark’s School. This article is adapted from The Commons, the weblog of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.


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