As readers of the Cafe are no doubt aware, two of the Episcopal Church’s ten seminaries are beset by internal conflict. The faculty at both Episcopal Divinity School and the General Seminary have expressed significant disagreements and dissatisfaction with their deans.
The boards of trustees at both institutions have re-affirmed their confidence in these deans. Two faculty members left EDS for high-profile jobs elsewhere. Most of the full-time faculty at General remains out of work following a series of well-chronicled events, but they and the board are currently negotiating what might be at least a temporary resolution of their difficulties.
In the midst of these conflicts, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s opening remarks to the recently concluded session of Executive Council are worth examination by those who might not typically read the remarks that she and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings make at the beginning of each session of the council.
As old models become unsustainable in some contexts, dioceses are finding new ways to form leaders – like the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka that serves students from four neighboring dioceses. Theological education is much in the news, with active conflict in several places, a result of deep anxiety over looming changes. We have excellent resources for theological education, yet they need to be redistributed to form and train leaders more effectively for new and changing contexts. In some ways, that current reality reflects the increasing economic inequality in the developed world, particularly in the United States. The wealthy have little difficulty in accessing those resources; the poor struggle, yet often the poor discover and create new possibilities out of necessity.
The average Episcopal congregation, with 60 to 70 members attending weekly worship, cannot afford the traditional model of full-stipend paid leadership, a building, and a sufficient program to support its members in their daily baptismal ministry. Nor can seminary graduates with educational debt afford to work in most of them.
Students today can be trained for ordination to the priesthood anywhere, if they can foot the bill. If not, they have much more limited resources in residential seminaries – a couple of them can provide sufficient aid to graduate students with little or no additional debt. Increasing numbers of ordination candidates and lay leaders are being educated in programs like Bishop Kemper School, which require minimal displacement from job and family and produce graduates with little or no additional debt. In order to provide effective formation, those more local institutions and programs work closer to home to gather a community for formation. As has always been the case, the struggling and the poorer communities have tended to be more creative in responding to these changing realities. Most of the residential seminaries we have were started in response to similar challenges – the need for education and the inability to provide it in existing frameworks and paradigms.
The Church of England has made a conscious and canonical shift in its expectation. Those who train for non-stipendiary ministry (NSM) do it in two years; those who expect a “career” take a more traditional three years. One of our seminaries has begun to explore a two-year academic track with an additional practical year. The Lutherans have had a model like that for some time – but it’s four years total, three of the four for academics and the third year as a practicum.
We need responses to changing realities that consider the varied needs of the whole body. We have the canonical flexibility already to permit different paths of formation. What we don’t have is a willingness to make resources available to the whole body. We still live in a system that is far more isolated and independent than interdependent. Each diocese makes individual decisions about how to train students. Each seminary does the same. Each diocese and seminary or training program raises and stewards its own financial and human resources with little churchwide conversation or cooperation.
What do you think of the presiding bishop’s remarks? What might they portend for the ten seminaries of the Episcopal Church? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a system such as the Bishop Kemper School?
The presiding bishop says what the church lacks is “a willingness to make resources available to the whole body.” Given that each of the church’s seminaries must sink or swim financially on it own, how might such a willingness be cultivated?