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The Future of Anglican Theological Education: A Dean’s Diagnosis

This essay has been modified slightly to more accurately reflect the history of Bexley-Seabury. — Editor.

By Garwood Anderson

To imagine the future of theological education in the Anglican world is to engage in a combination of prognostication and prescription. In this three-part series, I shall try to do a bit of both, but first a diagnosis.

We begin with the symptoms, focused on Anglican[1] bodies in North America, especially in the United States. We are in a highly dynamic situation, as can be witnessed by a series of events among the Episcopal/Anglican seminaries even within the past year. The breaking news is the sharp decline in residential seminary formation programs and the abrupt rise of distance programs and local formation for future clergy. Merely a decade ago, the Episcopal Church had 11 seminaries that offered residential theological formation — albeit in different configurations and some of us struggling, to be sure — and today, while nine such seminaries remain, only five still offer residential theological formation.

  • In 2012, Bexley Hall and Seabury-Western federated, relocating to the property of Chicago Theological Seminary a few years later, and have pioneered an exclusively hybrid-distance or low-residency model.
  • This year, we learned that General Theological Seminary has been taken into Virginia Theological Seminary and has turned to an exclusively hybrid-distance model.
  • Church Divinity School of the Pacific, now in partnership with Trinity Episcopal Church Wall Street, has followed suit, no longer offering residential formation.
  • Episcopal Divinity School, once of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Union Theological Seminary (New York) have severed their relationship, leaving EDS an unaccredited institution.
  • Finally, Trinity School for Ministry, while continuing residential education, has effectively severed ties with the Episcopal Church for a more exclusive relationship with the Anglican Church in North America.

This means that only five institutions traditionally affiliated with the Episcopal Church are now offering residential formation programs: Virginia Theological Seminary, Seminary of the Southwest, The School of Theology of the University of the South, Nashotah House, and Berkeley Divinity School, this latter being embedded in Yale Divinity School. As for embedded institutions or programs, there are several, some of which may boast a larger class of Episcopal or Anglican M.Div. students than many of the historic Episcopal seminaries, including the Anglican-Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity and the Episcopal and Anglican Studies Program at Candler School of Theology at Emory.

No less significant, we have witnessed an upsurge of local formation options sponsored by dioceses or provinces, such as the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, or the local adoption of the Iona program from Seminary of the Southwest, and the emerging plans for the Mercer School of Theology in the Diocese of Long Island. These and other unaccredited programs seek to make theological formation maximally accessible, not least for prospective part-time and bi-vocational clergy or for persons for whom either the expense or relocation to an accredited seminary is deemed impractical.

If we ask how this has come to be, the answers are not hard to find.

Behind all that dizzying change are some straightforward statistics, all of us responding to them as best we can. According to the Association of Theological Schools data, there were 1,129 Episcopal M.Div. students at member schools in 2003-04 compared to 531 in 2022-23 (a 53% decline). There is a proportional decline in the total number of Episcopal seminarians, from 2,271 in 2003-04 to 1,050 reported in 2022-23 (a 54% decline). The situation for the Anglican Church of Canada is even more stark in its decline of M.Div. students (-66%), though less severe as it concerns the total number of seminarians (-25%).

  2003-04 2022-23 % Change
  M.Div. Students Total

Students

M.Div. Students Total

Students

M.Div. change Total change
Episcopal Church 1,129 2,271 531 1,050 -53% -54%
Anglican Church of Canada 246 358 84 268 -66% -25%
Total as Reported 1,375 2,629 615 1,318 -55% -50%

Meanwhile, although the ATS only began reporting an Anglican–Other category in 2008, unsurprisingly, this has become a growing pool.

  2008-09 2022-23 Change
M.Div. Students Total

Students

M.Div. Students Total

Students

M.Div. change Total change
Anglican–Other 101 238 159 642 +59% +170%

It is important to note that these students are spread across numerous institutions, not merely those that are traditionally Anglican/Episcopal, but it remains significant that the overall pool of Episcopal students is shrinking dramatically. Given these numbers, it can be no surprise that numerous Episcopal seminaries are downsizing and reinventing themselves. While this is generally the case among mainline seminaries, even once-growing evangelical seminaries are not exempt.[2]

Still other factors compound and exacerbate this situation — most obviously, financial factors. Higher education is expensive, especially full-time residential formation — expensive to both the providing institutions and to their students. Small, boutique institutions, if lacking a large endowment, typically run with skeleton staffs, live with deferred maintenance, and still run perpetual deficits, nonetheless. Even much larger institutions have recently looked to downsizing programs and staffing and to property sales to secure their futures. Seminaries of all kinds and sizes are taking a beating. Anglicans are not alone in this regard.

The changing demographics of seminarians is yet another factor. The time is long past when it could simply be assumed that the bishop’s directive to pack up and move to seminary was non-negotiable. Today, seminarians are quite often from a two-career household, and students and senders more frequently engage in a negotiation that will work for both partners, increasingly choosing a local or remote option over one requiring relocation.

Moreover, if the local parish “job market” is increasingly bi-vocational, part time, or non-stipendiary, it is thought hard to justify three years and all the expense. Even called persons with willing hearts may not be able to make the math work out.

Meanwhile, the rise of serviceable technology has combined with market forces to drive a decisive move toward distance/online/low-residency education. While this has been happening across ATS seminaries to various degrees for several decades, seminaries in the Anglican tradition have been relatively late adopters until very recently. While this promised cash cow has often failed to materialize, there is no question that there are practicalities and financial savings to be had in this mode of instruction. Convenience and perceived efficiencies are winning.

In the next two installments, I will turn from diagnosis to prescription.


[1] I will use the designation Anglican in the proper sense of those affiliated with the Anglican Communion or those drawing their self-understanding chiefly from the Anglican tradition, rather than its increasingly popular sense of those in North America who are eager to distinguish themselves from the Episcopal Church. Where there may be ambiguity, I will use the inelegant slash for a double descriptor.

[2] Witness, for example, the elimination of satellite campuses by Bethel (St. Paul, Minn.), Fuller, and Asbury; the sale or proposed sale of property for Gordon-Conwell and Fuller; the decline in enrollment and reduction of faculty at Bethel, Trinity Evangelical Divinity (Deerfield, Ill.), and Southwestern Baptist (Ft. Worth).

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