By Philip Turner
In this country and abroad I have been involved in theological education for more than 50 years. My involvement as an active participant has come to an end. Passing this professional milestone has caused me to reflect upon those years and the efforts I have expended to carry out my vocation as a teacher of Christian ethics and a seminary dean. This effort to take stock has led me to the conclusion that much of the effort I have expended during this period has been in very serious ways misdirected.
I do not mean that I have wasted my time or that I have failed to be a positive influence on my students. I mean only that in retrospect I wish I had given my thoughts and efforts a different focus. Looking back, I see that in both the classroom and from behind a dean’s desk my primary focus has been upon the content of my courses and the promotion of the institution that had been placed in my hands for safe keeping. To put the matter in a different way, my teaching was shaped in large measure by the state of play within the guild of teachers of Christian ethics, and my administrative leadership was driven by the fragile state of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church.
Now there is certainly nothing wrong with being professionally competent and administratively deft! These are fundamental requirements of the positions I have held. Nevertheless, the times are making it increasingly clear that pedagogical and administrative competence alone produce a culpable myopia that amounts to a tragic form of blindness. One simply misses the fact that the position of the churches and indeed the Christian faith within the United States has, in the past half-century, changed.
Churches are increasingly socially marginal and their numerical strength is in rapid decline. As I like to say, the Church is no longer being asked to be the religious and moral tutor of the American public. This change in the social location of the Church is a game- changer that requires rethinking the concerns that ought to motivate and shape the goals churches set for the formation of their ordained and lay leadership. I believe six goals take account of the true position of churches and so ought to shape the formation offered by our seminaries.
1. Holiness of Life: I have placed this goal first because of a firm conviction that successful execution of the many and varied functions and roles that fall to clergy and other ministers within the Church depends upon the imitation of a life. Paul urges us to become imitators of him as he is of Christ. It is true that that people expect their clergy to be good preachers, effective leaders, and wise counselors. Nevertheless, behind these functions lies the being or character of the person carrying them out. If they do not adequately mirror the holiness of life made present to us in Christ, they fail to impress the lives within their care. Apart from holiness of life, no matter their degree of competence, they leave no lasting impression. They effect no changes deep in the soul. Apart from these changes, the Church will have no lasting effect and will fail in its mission.
2. Holy Learning (or Wisdom): The Fathers of the Church were clear that knowledge of God does not occur apart from a life that mirrors the truth about God made known in Christ Jesus. This truth leads to another goal for theological education: holy learning, or wisdom. If one carefully reads the vows taken at ordination within the Episcopal Church and if one inquires seriously about what it takes to provide lay leadership, it becomes obvious that that knowledge of Holy Scripture and its interpretation is of fundamental importance. Being wise in Christ is not inborn. Such wisdom must be communicated and learned. A handing over of this sort lies at the center of the charge the Church gives to those who have responsibility for its continued health and growth. If the Church does not have this sort of wise leadership, it will fail in its mission.
3. Leadership and Authority: Leadership is a very popular word these days, but what sort of person is equipped to lead? Authority is not a very popular word these days, but can a community thrive apart from its wise and skilled exercise? We talk much of servant ministry, and such speech is right and good. However, it often is misused in ways that suggest passivity and adaptive behavior rather than the sort of action necessary to procure and maintain communal health and discipline. Given the needs of our congregations, can we avoid formation for leadership and the exercise of authority? If its leadership is incapable of leading and exercising authority, the Church will fail in its mission.
4. Community Presence: The Church carries on its mission always within a larger social environment. This will be the case until Christ comes again and God is all in all. Just what is the nature of that presence? What are its various forms? How are the leaders of the Church to be present within this larger environment? These questions are now of fundamental importance. The day has passed when one could pass from the life of the soul, to the life of the home, to the life of the neighborhood, to the life of the town or city, to the life of the nation without crossing a major social boundary. Hooker sought a commonwealth in which such easy passage was well ordered and simply commonplace. We do not live in such a world, but we have not provided our leaders and those in authority over us with an effective model that helps them function within this increasingly alien world. This question is of particular importance for all those who believe that the social mission of the Church is of basic importance for its identity. Unless a satisfactory answer is found to this question, the Church will fail in its mission.
5. Catholic Sensibility: Americans are notoriously provincial in their view of the world. This narrowness of vision is probably a function of our size, wealth, and two large oceans. American denominations mirror this provincial mindset in that our indigenous form of polity is congregational. Congregationalism is characteristic not only of Protestant bodies but also of churches claiming a more catholic identity. Indeed, John Henry Newman wondered if a form of Catholic Christianity is possible within American culture. The recent actions of the Episcopal Church have exposed this tendency with stark clarity. Our claim to be a Catholic form of Christianity is belied by our exaggerated claims to autonomy. The point is that our students come to us with visions of catholicity that are not supported by actual practice. Yet, Anglicanism as a whole defines itself in catholic terms. If one believes that ministry properly is ordered with catholicity in mind, what needs to be done to provide a sensibility that is in large measure lacking? If this question is not given a satisfactory answer, the Church will fail in its mission.
6. Evangelical Capacity: For years, the Episcopal Church has thought of its mission in pastoral and social terms. We minister to people who are already Christians and we do good works for the benefit of society as a whole. Thus, we eagerly embrace development goals, and we seek effective means of providing pastoral care. What we do not do is recommend the faith within with conviction and passion to those who do not believe. We tend to think of evangelism as leading Christians from one denomination to another rather than confronting an unbelieving world with the truth about God in Christ that compels a response of acceptance or rejection. No one wants to give up on providing pastoral ministry and no one wants to abandon what we often call the social mission of the church. But in a society in which many religions now flourish, in which Nones dominate the rising generation, and in which many openly hold Christian belief in contempt, can we avoid the question of evangelical capacity much longer and maintain any credibility at all? If this issue is not addressed, the Church will fail in its mission.
These are my reflections after a long period spent in theological education both within the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion. It is easy to see that I have done nothing but place a few notes below each of these headings. I have done so to provoke discussion and investigation rather than deliver a final word. The real work of our church is to ask if these goals or some other set of goals adequately describe formation for ministry in a way that is adequate; and if they do not, make these additions and changes. If we do not do so, we will fail in our mission.
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner was dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.