By David Hein
In today’s world, all Anglican and Episcopal primary and secondary schools must negotiate the inclines, dips, and turns of multilane academic highways. Families have many options to choose from: public charter schools, progressive schools, classical academies, traditional boarding schools, historic day schools, evangelical Christian schools, homeschooling, Roman Catholic schools, Quaker schools, and others. Parents (a school’s customers) avidly seek the largest return on their investment on behalf of their children (a school’s clients).
The competition is considerable; all schools want to flourish. But how to discover the path to prosperity? One good answer may lie along a route marked by those who have thought about the aims and approaches of ecumenism.
The species of ecumenism that most of us are familiar with strives toward agreements between theologically aligned communions on such matters as baptism, justification, the Lord’s Supper, and the historic episcopate. This approach typically has as its ultimate aim settling differences of faith and polity so that full communion can be effected.
In his 2007 article “Saving Ecumenism from Itself,” Cardinal Avery Dulles spoke of an appealing alternative (or complement) to this convergence model: receptive ecumenism, which does not seek full communion or even agreement. Rather, its aim is reform within: listening to and learning from another ecclesial body so that positive change — spiritual renewal — can occur within one’s own church.
With Cardinal Dulles’s blessing, I took on the challenge of adopting his approach by suggesting for Anglicans the strange possibility of ecumenical engagement with the Old Order Amish — a strange proposal because these Anabaptists do not participate in interchurch dialogues at all (“Radical Ecumenism,” Sewanee Theological. Review, Pentecost 2008).
Surprisingly, Amish and Anglicans do have some significant beliefs and practices in common. In any event, my view was that an old establishment denomination, representing “church-type” Christianity, stood to learn much in general about the use of the created order and the meaning of success, and much in particular about enacting one’s faith and forgiving others, from this distinctive embodiment of “sect-type” Christianity. (Many years later, readers may still recall the remarkable response of these heirs of the Radical Reformation to the Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in October 2006.)
In a similar fashion, today’s Anglican or Episcopal school leaders might benefit from being receptive to developments beyond their own schools. For example, many schools represent their understanding of mission by way of the Head’s public statements and through general letters to the larger community from leading administrators such as the dean of students and the assistant head for academics.
But what is usually missing is the involvement of all of the institution’s faculty in interpreting their school’s ethos by way of each participant’s thoughtful comments on his or her work and goals. For example, an upper-school classics instructor might discuss how his teaching of Plutarch’s Lives offers a compelling story- and character-driven way to study history.
In fact, that’s just what you’ll find at The Heights, a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Potomac, Maryland, near the nation’s capital. In a podcast interview, Tom Cox, a veteran humanities teacher, enthusiastically discloses how “boys come alive” when they confront the difficulties faced by great leaders, such as Cicero, and discover the influence these figures had on our own country’s founders. Through the examples of these heroes, students learn about human beings who were flawed but still inspiring; students grapple with the challenges faced and the choices made by persons who displayed virtue in the midst of their struggles.
By means of this teacher’s thoughtful take on his work — his insights into “why and how we teach Plutarch” — listeners broaden their understanding of The Heights, its goals and practices. Experiencing a purposeful academic enterprise, they discern what this school is attempting to achieve in the education of “young men fully alive in the liberal-arts tradition.”
Any academic establishment — but especially traditional Church schools in harmony with the character and aims of The Heights — could learn a great deal by going to school on what this particular institution has accomplished through its Heights Forum, a magazine-style assemblage of podcasts, videos, and articles that reveal a coherent grasp of mission all the way through the school. Every teacher is reflective and stimulating in describing decisions made and activities pursued in response to the school’s vocation. Everyone — not just the Head of School and the top leaders — manifests mission; it percolates through the entire enterprise.
More broadly, classical Christian schools (CCSs) offer much that the rest of us should assess carefully with an eye to reforming our own enterprises. In fascinating ways, the CCS movement is stirring the educational pot. In the spirit of receptive ecumenism, we in Anglican or Episcopal schools should be open to learning from those we don’t want to unite with but that we do not want to be left behind by either. We need to keep scanning the horizon for institutional practices that not only dovetail with our convictions but also flesh out our principles in ways we might have overlooked. Certainly, CCSs have borrowed from Anglicans: they love the works of Dorothy L. Sayers (paying close attention to The Lost Tools of Learning) and C. S. Lewis (particularly The Abolition of Man).
Two features of the CCS program are worth paying attention to right off the bat: integration and virtues. The CCS literature notes that academic subjects are too separated in most schools, not just in the state schools but in independent schools as well. Each discipline is a smokestack by itself, and the religion program occurs almost exclusively in chapel apart from the academic life of the school or in one theology class apart from the other classes.
On the website of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, you will find a thought-provoking article titled “‘English Class’ vs. ‘The Trivium.’” The author observes: “The basis of contemporary education is that truth is individualized and compartmentalized. The Trivium as practiced in classical Christian education emphasizes writing, reading, logic, and speaking across all subjects.” And in another part of this article, the author comments on the distance between the regular academic subjects at most independent schools and any theological convictions the school has: “Other subjects [apart from religion class or chapel] are seen as neutral or disconnected” from faith and ethics.
So that’s one question we should be open to considering: about the integration in church schools between, in effect, church and school.
And second: The CCSs, with their classical and Christian commitments, heavily emphasize the virtues, sharply distinguishing them from merely subjective values, especially the classical virtues of fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. A leading text for CCS educators is The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (3rd ed., 2021). Its authors see the school as “a community of belief and practice that is striving toward virtue.” Our own schools, heirs of an Anglican way that has historically stressed the will and the conscience, could be much more focused and intentional about teaching the virtues.
Language and literature: Writers must try to perceive with others’ eyes, according to perspectives different from their own. Therefore writing requires a temporary “unselfing of the self,” in Evelyn Underhill’s phrase; it is a work of the moral imagination. Unfortunately, if curious readers seek material on “writing and ethics” on the Internet, they will find many sources on inclusive language and avoiding the charge of plagiarism but almost nothing on the virtues.
Crucial to good writing are fortitude and perseverance. Why not explicitly name and talk about these virtues in class? If we do, then students will become more aware of themselves as moral actors, responsible selves, and they will also become better writers.
The virtue of temperance is essential, too. But students are not going to think about temperance unless we discuss what it means. Temperance, patience, humility, and gratitude are not the popular virtues today. Instead: creativity, individuality, health, personal happiness, and some vague notions of social justice. (For more on this whole subject, see my articles “Writing as a Moral Act,” “Writing, Teaching, Virtues.”).
History: Courage is a constant element in both political and military history, as well as in social history — think of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others. Why not raise this subject more directly? Infusing virtues in the curriculum will add an intellectual and moral depth to each course. Distinguish courage from both cowardice and rashness. Analyze its relationship to prudence and justice. Discuss a war in relation to just-war theory. When does justice require fighting to prevent injustice to the innocent? What is the role of prudence in looking after the national interest? How does a nation avoid the sin of pride — arrogant self-righteousness — in the conduct of its foreign policy? How did the Marshall Plan balance increasing freedom and justice for other nations with the U.S. strategic interest? Can nations be morally selfless?
Natural sciences: Is there room for just one class during the term which is interdisciplinary, which brings in a guest conversationalist on the topic of scientific discoveries and natural phenomena in light of the virtue of faith? What is the relation between Darwinian evolution and divine creation? Where was God in the tsunami? How is the suffering of innocent children dysteleological — that is, a problem for theodicy, for comprehending natural evil in the face of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator? What about moral evil? What, if anything, does natural selection say about human selfishness or sin?
On Sunday morning, August 28, 2022, Father Stuart Dunnan, the longtime headmaster of Saint James School in Maryland, preached a sermon to all the boarders and the rest of us in attendance. It was on Luke 14, in which Jesus talks about giving a feast. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Having in mind the ancient Christian virtue of hospitality, Father Dunnan commented: Don’t invite only the cool kids because you want to be known as one of them. Invite everyone. At a dinner party, don’t talk the whole evening with just one interesting person next to you. Talk with those on both sides. And: you might well find that the neglected outsider you strike up a conversation with will turn out to be the most interesting person of all.
Sitting there in chapel, I thought: this is why Saint James works. You make it clear, not just what a student should know but also what a young person should be. The appropriate social customs are tied to moral action-guides, and ethical principles are rooted in the gospel narrative. You make these matters clear — in chapel, in class, in the refectory, on the playing fields, on trips to other schools and to cultural sites. As in this sermon, you’re specific; you begin with concrete examples from ordinary life.
On fundamental matters of faith and ethics, we have to be definite about what Lewis called the Tao, the Way, or what the CCS folks and others call the paideia, an education toward a particular way of life, founded on timeless principles of true belief and right conduct. In fact, a dean of students or a dorm parent might take Father Dunnan’s homily subject a bit further and ask students: What is the relation between these two virtues, philia and agape? When might agape counsel the transformation—the extension — of philia?
The path to academic flourishing requires sharing the road. Be ecumenically receptive to the ways in which other educational communities, different from ours, are shaking things up and offering intriguing alternatives. Be explicit about the virtues we’re committed to. Make thinking about them a school priority; relax the disciplinary boundaries. Explore these habits of moral and spiritual excellence across the community. Be both wise and humble: openly practice scholastic ecumenism. The customers will notice, and the clients will benefit.
David Hein is a senior fellow at the George C. Marshall Foundation, in Lexington, Virginia. His publications include ten books and more than seventy articles in the New Criterion, the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, the Mississippi Quarterly, Theology, the Christian Century, the Journal of Military History, Touchstone, Modern Age, and other periodicals. His most recent book is Archbishop Fisher, 1945–1961: Church, State and World (Routledge). He is a graduate and former trustee of St. Paul’s School, Brooklandville, Maryland, and a current trustee of Saint James School, near Hagerstown, Maryland.