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Theological education and the future of the church

November 5, 2014

72434249THE SITUATION at General Seminary, coupled with the Presiding Bishop’s recent comments on the reform of theological education, has provoked responses both impassioned and considered from those invested in the future of our church.

For what it is worth, and perhaps to the surprise of our readers, we agree that a three-year, residential seminary education is outmoded in a world where seminarians are not fully funded by their dioceses or by the seminaries themselves. How indeed is a postulant — without means — from some distant place supposed to pay the tuition, travel, and living expenses of a General Seminary (or CDSP, or Virginia Seminary, or Sewanee) education? If the dioceses are unwilling to materially support these people in the old forms, then we are agreed that some new forms are necessary. We like the idea of creating more local theological education programs and augmenting them with final, year-long courses at the major seminaries — clerical finishing school — courses like the ones seminarians from other denominations pursue before taking their orders in the Episcopal Church.

That said, it is vital that any such geographical shifts not become an excuse for turning the MDiv into something like an MMin. As the Congregationalist minister David C. Fisher has written:

There is no accepted theology of ministry in our time. Instead, the practice of ministry has become the theology. The task itself is the model.… ‘Shepherding,’ the ancient practice of the cure of souls, became more and more counseling. Clinical pastoral education moved to the center of pastoral training. Because the base was social science, not theology, the pastoral art was reduced to human skill. The transcendent dimension of ministry, its grounding in God himself, was removed from pastoral theology.1

When we hear about the gulf between seminary education and the daily work of the parish priest, it is not because theology is not properly at the center of all the church does; it is because of the ecclesiological failure described by Dr. Fisher. Yes, the priest should be a competent general administrator, but the degradation of pastoral theology must be guarded against. To turn the ordinand’s degree from one in Divinity to one in “ministerial studies” is to promote further abasement of ordained ministry — turning priests into strangely dressed social workers — and of the church entrusted to its care.

What we also do not like is the separation of the priesthood into two tracks. We already have a second track, which is called the diaconate. If we all weren’t so blindly opposed to having Morning Prayer on Sunday mornings, the deacons would be a much more liturgically useful bunch. But even the most unreconstructed classist among our group of bloggers agrees that a two-track priesthood is a sorry option indeed, and any move to bifurcate the priesthood into two classes (the sure result of a two-track option) would compromise the ordained leadership of the church.

Consider: here in New York, both General Seminary and Trinity Church have suffered recently from meagre, insular, vision-less clerical leadership (the GTS story our readers will know; the Trinity Church story, here). And yet, both of the clergymen concerned have had three-year seminary educations. One cannot imagine that anyone from a hypothetical two-year track ever would have been competitive for either job, not at a major institution like GTS or Trinity. Their resumes would have been tossed straight into the garbage. And yet we know that vision, passion, and competence do not attend financial resources, that the humblest among us often are given great abilities. Indeed this is a profoundly scriptural idea, most memorably (for us Anglicans) articulated by Mary: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.” We in the church should not impede the Lord’s work by separating the clergy into two classes.

The counterargument — that the two-year track would be mainly for non-stipendiary clergy — is ludicrous on its face: it would be, by default, the track for those without the ability to pay for the three-year plan. This would give dioceses and scholarship committees undue power over the fates of their clergy, hobbling many of ability before they could even leave the gate.

But there is a subtext here as well, and as always, we are wary of efforts to displace the Cross from the center of our common life, as the path away from the Cross is the way of death. Later in her remarks, the Presiding Bishop commented that, “We have a dream as well, of a church walking together, doing and living justice, a church equipped and equipping all its members to do justice. We have a duty to all the members of this body, and to those beyond it who need justice. We are asked for the highest and best gift we can offer, in loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We note in this whole central statement of mission that God is absent, that the second commandment is made greater than the first.

This is something one hears too often in church: that we follow the teachings of Jesus toward social justice and equality for all. True, but woefully incomplete. As Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified.”2 To do less is to preach less than the faith. In our increasingly unchurched world, where fewer and fewer people have an understanding of scripture, theological education — for clergy and laity alike — is more important, not less. The MDiv matters.

One doesn’t need a tenured chair in semiotics to preach the Gospel, but a working knowledge of scripture and of what N.T. Wright calls the “faithfulness of God” are absolutely essential.3 The church will be nowhere preaching the thin gruel of self-serving, intellectually vacant, theologically barren cant that has been the produce of too many pulpits lo these many years. The Gospel word itself, that Christ died for the ungodly, for the unworthy, that Christ died even for you, and even for me, has made us a “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” and why? “That you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”4 That is our first task — not the soup kitchen, not the quest for social justice, laudable as those things are. Without the word preached, or with the word confounded with the social goals at the heart of the Presiding Bishop’s dream, we are all just the Junior League, and not a very competent one at that. Those who have heard the word don’t need social justice preached to them: their very lives become living witness to social justice, flesh and blood sermons of a power to devastate the Presiding Bishop’s post-Christian lecturing.

Our readers may note that we have entitled this post “Theological education and the future of the church.” As persons of faith and keen students of history, we are not worried about the faith. We expect very well that the faith — and the Gospel of Christ which animates it — will endure throughout the world, down each generation. The question before us all concerns the future of the church. Some have noted that America in the 21st century is the great mission field of the world, with more pagan idols and competing claims to truth than first-, second-, or third-century Rome could in its wildest dreams hope to possess. In such a time and in such a field, where will the Episcopal Church be? Will it proclaim the Gospel to a broken world crying out in pain for the fearful mercy of the Almighty God? Will it “preach Christ crucified”?

This coming Sunday we will read the Parable of the Ten Virgins. We wonder what the church will hear. That we should sleep comfortably at night, surely trusting in the rightness of our own opinions and our own good deeds? Or that we should keep watch, listening for that voice that will astound us, preaching and bearing witness to the one who came to save sinners, even as we look toward his coming again?

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.5

1. David C. Fisher, 21st Century Pastor: A Vision Based on the Ministry of Paul (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996), 9-10.
2. 1 Corinthians 1:23
3. From the title of Wright’s masterwork on Paul: Wright, N.T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2013.
4. 1 Peter 2:9
5. 2 Corinthians 4:5

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