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A future for formation

By Daniel Martins

Last May, the graduation week festivities at Nashotah House Theological Seminary featured a lecture by the Rev. Dr. Daniel Aleshire, retiring executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. Dr. Aleshire offered cogent reflections on the state of contemporary theological education, after having devoted an illustrious career in service of the same. He took a historical approach to set the context, beginning with what might be called the “classical” model, wherein someone known to be well-grounded in the liberal arts — literature, history, philosophy, and the classical languages (Greek and Latin) — was deemed prima facie to be suitably formed academically for ordained ministry. Over the course of the 19th century, this model was gradually replaced by what we would now call a “professional” approach. Theological education became a graduate enterprise, after the completion of a baccalaureate degree in the liberal arts. Dedicated institutions — seminaries or theological colleges — arose to meet this need. Faculty became specialized in the defined academic disciplines of divinity: Old and New Testament, Church history, historical and systematic theology, moral theology, pastoralia, ascetics, and liturgics.

What, then, of the future? These are turbid times for schools that are anchored in the customary three-year residential MDiv. Aversion to student debt and geographic relocation and the rise of technology-driven distance learning models invite a profound reexamination of how theological education gets delivered. Dr. Aleshire took a back-to-the-future approach, evoking a deeply relational paradigm that focuses on a master, or a community of masters, and a community of disciples. This bends the very notion of education as the orderly and systematic transfer of information from one who knows to one who learns, turning it into a process of formation, effecting a holistic change in potential ordinand. (This at least reflected the speaker’s awareness of his audience, since Nashotah House’s calling card is a Benedictine experience of formation in community, with an academic component. It may also be, in a sidelong way, a contribution to the Benedict Option conversation: see here, here, and here, for Covenant’s contribution.)

Hearing this lecture immediately took me back in time 35 years. In the early-to-mid 1980s, I was a lay catechist in the parish that eventually sent me to seminary. We were early adopters in a trend that gained momentum in that era, but arguably never reached critical mass, at least not in the Episcopal Church — adapting the practices and rites and vocabulary, as nearly as we can know them, of the catechumenate as it existed in its golden age, the third and fourth centuries. We were steeped in the notion that formation for baptism (and, by extension, of those who have been baptized but never catechized) is all about formation, not information. Our approach to catechesis was lectionary-driven, non-linear, non-systematic. We constituted a community of candidates, sponsors, and catechists who walked with one another in a process that was formative for all.

Was I noticing a casual resemblance, an apples-to-oranges comparison? Not quite, I think. It has been observed that, in the ancient Church, getting baptized was a demanding and time-consuming process, with three years as the putative norm, but, once baptized, getting ordained could happen quite quickly. In the contemporary church, getting baptized can usually be accomplished with relative dispatch (to the dismay of those who continue to advocate for the revival of the catechumenate), while getting ordained generally requires three years of seminary. There appears, then, to be an organic connection between theological education/formation at all levels, whether for baptism/confirmation, lay discipleship, or preparation for holy orders. The question presents itself: Can the model of formation in community, as distinguished from the mere transfer of information from teacher to learner, become a cross-platform app, usable in a variety of ecclesial contexts? And, if so, what would it look like?

The model is one of master/disciple rather than teacher/student. There is, of course, a good bit of overlap between the two. Perhaps the distinguishing factor is that vigorous multidirectional interaction would increase and unidirectional lecturing would decrease. It places an onus on the master to be self-effacing even while authoritative, to operate from a place of humility even while sharing expertise. This applies equally to parish catechists, whether lay or ordained, and to those holding a PhD or a distinguished chair.

Formation in community would necessarily be more holistic and less systematic. Long-entrenched habits of curriculum development and instructional methods would need to be mercilessly reexamined — deconstructed and reconstructed. The inclination to start in some evidently appropriate place and proceed logically and coherently to some ineluctable conclusion would need resisting. A pendulum swing may be necessary, away from the defined academic disciplines of divinity, with “masters” — catechists and faculty members — extensively cross-trained, and ready to pass the baton to a colleague when the conversation moves in a particular direction. It would feel messy and chaotic to almost everyone involved.

Liturgical texts would fuel formation in community, after first being ignited in corporate worship. In parish settings, the Sunday liturgy would be the lodestone of catechesis. In seminaries, the communal offering of the daily office and celebration of the Eucharist would be of critical importance, not merely for inculcating lifelong habits of spiritual practice, but as the raw material for academic colloquy. The lectionary, of course, enjoys pride of place in such a schema. The pericopes read in the office and at Mass become the trailheads for discourse in biblical studies and theology (both dogmatic and moral). Then the prayers — eucharistic prayers, intercessions, and especially the eucharistic collects — shed additional theological, ascetical, and liturgical light. Not to be forgotten are the texts of hymns, which are a virtually fathomless treasury of theology and spirituality.

This is a huge challenge. It is utterly counterintuitive, perhaps less so among parish pastors than seminary professors, but only by a small degree. It subverts entrenched cultural habits and protocols in academia, and would not play nicely with ingrained and largely dysfunctional patterns of behavior in academic politics. It would be exceedingly difficult on those who are drawn to systemization like iron filings to a magnet (I stare in a mirror as I write this). It upends program-year parish patterns and academic-year seminary patterns. Most of all, it demands an intimidating level of commitment and conversion going in. It will take a long time to stumble into a new and workable homeostasis. Living and working in community can be appealingly romanticized in the abstract, but is agonizingly difficult in the concrete. It demands a herculean level of integrity and dedication. All involved, especially pastors and institutional leaders, must be relentless in walking their talk.

But does something along these lines represent the shape of Christian formation — whether for initiation or ordination — in a post-Christian society?


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