By Jason Ingalls and Joseph Wolyniak
Rembrandt painted his iconic The Return of the Prodigal Son only a few years before he died in 1669. The returning son kneels before his welcoming father. The elder brother, robed in crimson, stands to the right. A wealthy man sits, a servant stands, the mother watches from the background; but the painting highlights the returner and the receiver. The Prodigal has come home.
Many have mourned theology’s separation from the Church, but in the last 30 years we have witnessed resurgent efforts to reconnect academic theology to its ecclesial roots. The Scholar-Priest Initiative stands in this vein, endeavoring to be the servant in the background of Rembrandt’s picture: to do everything in our power to reintegrate theology back into the life of the parish; to rekindle theological vocation and imagination; in short, to welcome theology home.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada face three intractable and seemingly unrelated problems: the double bind of ordained parochial leadership, the diminishment of theological discourse in parish life, and the overall decline of North American theological education.
First, while debates rage on whether and to what extent North American Anglicanism is in decline (and what to do about it), we suffer from an undeniable and debilitating double bind in our parochial leadership. In the Episcopal Church nearly 40 percent of congregations operate without full-time, permanent ordained ministers. Our churches — ever increasingly, it seems — simply cannot afford full-time clergy. Many dioceses have accordingly found themselves with a glut of ordained ministers. Several have suspended their discernment processes because they already have too many unemployed and underemployed priests. We have an overabundance of well-trained, capable priests. We have too many congregations in need of priests. We need to somehow connect the dots.
Second, there is a disconnect between theological discourse and parish life. While there is much worthwhile theological scholarship being pursued in the academy, it is often only the headline-grabbing stuff that trickles down to the parish roots. The faithful are far more likely to have read about the Jesus Seminar than they are narrative theology. While teaching figures prominently in the ordination of a priest (Scripture readings, Examination, Consecration) and in the canonical definition of priestly ministry (“Of the Life and Work of Priests,” Constitution & Canons, Title III, Canon IX, Sec. 5), rarely is the charism exercised. Priests are often forced into a managerial role when faced with parochial demands — feeling pinched to function as a CEO rather than the “pastor and teacher” (Eph. 4) they aspired to be. Priests vow to “be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make one a stronger and more able minister in Christ” (BCP, p. 532), but often find it an uphill battle to crack open a commentary. Compounding matters further, as Fr. Robert Hendrickson has noted, our discernment processes regularly turn away ordinands who feel a call both to parochial ministry and theological scholarship (see “The Consolation of Theology: Or Why We Need Scholar Priests,” thecuratesdesk.org, March 1, 2013). There is a suspicion of those who want to pursue both, and many people have been offered a forced choice: professor or priest. In many dioceses, you can be a priest or you can be a scholar, but you cannot aspire to be both.
For those who, when forced, choose the academic track, a third problem emerges: the overall decline of theological education in North America. In academe, there has been a steady decline in the number of full-time positions in the last few decades, with the fields of biblical and theological studies being especially hard-hit. As a result, many of those who choose professorial vocations struggle to find academic work, often taking adjunct teaching positions for less than minimum wage and spending their family’s income to travel to conferences, publish, and pursue opportunities for an academic career. We force potential theological educators to make an ill-fated choice, one which helps neither the aspirants nor the churches that sent them away.
Towards a Solution
But what if we did not force the choice? What if we created space within our structures for the parochial pursuit of theological scholarship? What if we encouraged and nurtured the vocation of scholar-priests?
First, it might make smaller, out-of-the-way, and under-resourced congregations attractive to those who would normally feel the need to stay near university centers. Such places could offer both the time and space to pursue theological scholarship, while also fostering a connection to the people on the ground for whom such scholarly edification is ultimately intended. Perhaps such places could allow for ten hours a week to pursue academic reading and writing. Perhaps both congregation and priest would be better for it.
Second, it might mean that theology for the Church would be done in the Church. We often hear complaints about the “ivory tower” nature of academic theology. What if we nurtured priests who pursued theological scholarship within the context of congregational ministry? What if theological jargon ceased to be an end in itself, aimed only at communicating with the guild, but instead became a part of the disciplined speech of scholar-priests aimed at communicating with a parochial audience? What if we fostered a network of pastoral mentors committed to helping fellow scholar-priests stabilize and expand the congregations they serve? Perhaps it would help bridge the gap between purportedly disconnected worlds, reminding the Church why scholarship matters and reminding scholars why the Church matters.
Third, it might mean that a new generation of theological scholars could pursue their craft without the (often deleterious) forced choices we are setting up. Instead of struggling to make ends meet and hoping against hope in the exploitive adjunct market, theological educators could pursue their vocation of research and teaching from within congregations. As such, they could serve as a resource to their congregation and diocese: equipping the faithful (lay and ordained) to pursue the ministry that is theirs, drawing on scholarship to illumine the issues of the day, and bearing fruits in the councils of the Church. It might mean that the theology of our Church would be marked by intense local engagement with global theological issues. It might mean that congregations once struggling to make it with non- and low-stipendiary priests would once again flourish with fresh vision and vigor. It might mean a generation of pastor-theologians who do what they love and love what they do.
Welcoming Theology Home
Little of this will come as a surprise. Many have already named these problems; some have suggested creative solutions. What is needed, however, is a coordinated effort to address these issues at once. That is where the Scholar-Priest Initiative comes in.
Attempting to address problems of the present with a hopeful foresight for the future and a deep commitment to the Church, SPI is working with bishops, seminary professors and deans, and other leaders in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada to connect priestless congregations with capable and committed scholar-priests. The burgeoning effort has been bolstered by a gracious cast of patrons and sponsors. The Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith of Missouri, and the Rt. Rev. Stephen Andrews of Algoma are serving as patron bishops, while a diverse network of sponsors have given their counsel and support. The network of interested congregations and priests is growing daily.
In June 2014, SPI will host its first gathering to establish and further foster a network of support and mentorship: the Society of Scholar-Priests. The society — open to all who support SPI’s parish-enabling model of centered, open, and hands-on scholar-priesthood — will promote both high-quality theological scholarship and professional enrichment for its members. In the years ahead, we hope to launch small parish grants that will help connect scholar-priests with congregations that cannot afford a full-time priest of their own. We also aspire to identify future scholar-priests and support their theological education and formation through a fellowship program. And that is just the beginning.
Rembrandt’s painting is about returning, welcoming, hurt feelings, squandered opportunities, hoped-for reconciliation, and new beginnings. Whether you’re the son, mother, father, or brother, we invite you to welcome theology home. We invite you to nurture the great tradition of scholar-priests — from Irenaeus, Augustine, and Aquinas, through Richard Hooker, the Caroline Divines, and William Temple, to Sarah Coakley, Sam Wells, and Rowan Williams. We invite you to help prepare the feast.
The Rev. Jason Ingalls is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee working as development assistant at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and assistant curate in two Church of England parishes. Joseph Wolyniak is a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, visiting scholar at the University of Denver, and a 2012 Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation.