By Garwood Anderson

If we can acknowledge that the Anglican theological training enterprise in North America is at an inflection point, the obvious question is this: What might be done? The expected answer will be ruminations on how to save the seminaries, which is an outcome in which I have a vested interest, but which we should also consider an unworthy goal in itself. If some of us need to be pruned, it will be painful, but so be it. The question is what the Episcopal/Anglican tradition needs to flourish, and the seminaries are important only in as much as we show ourselves critical toward that end. If there are better — not necessarily to say more expedient, cheaper, or less demanding—options, these also should be considered.

Here are some prescriptions under the heading of theses. This installment will focus more on practical suggestions, with more philosophical matters to follow in the concluding essay.

  1. Remote, distributed, and accessible theological education is here to stay, but it is not the future.

The biggest misstep we could make at this critical juncture, with pressure on all sides, would be to follow the trends without sufficient reflection and without a clear inventory of what would be abandoned in doing so. While we can affirm these innovations and alternatives as good and necessary — my seminary was a pioneer among our peers in hybrid-distance and low-residency programs — if we do not redouble our commitment to residential formation, we will miss the opportunity to shape this most promising generation of future leaders as deeply as we might. Indeed, the entire conception of ordained ministry will change shape accordingly, and the lower price of admission will not result in its elevation. While a wholesale adoption of remote learning and of local formation as the expedient alternatives may well supply the church with clergy in the short run, it will severely under-supply the church with the leadership, the theological wisdom, and the continuity we need for the long run.

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If there were two takeaways from the remote experiences we shared through the COVID pandemic, they were that it was heartening how much fellowship, worship, and learning could be done through remote technologies — and that it still just wasn’t the same, and for all kinds of reasons. Screens and speakers are not bodies with eyes and ears and dimensionality. The little timing hitches — “No, you go” — and the not-quite-synchronous body language cues, five senses reduced to two, and those two distracted — it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the same because it is not the same. I know almost no one who at the end of it said, “Let’s do more of that whenever we can.”

And this is only an account of the classroom. Never mind the spontaneous after-class Q&A, the chat on the way to refectory, sitting around the table for a raucous to-and-fro, the interpersonal niceties of vesting for chapel, the late-night study sessions that lose their way (not to mention those that stay on track). Now occupying the space of all that ennobling human interaction, we have only the at once blunt and jagged social media alternative, with its incessant posturing, dissimulation, agonism, and wounding assaults. Truly residential Christian formation is not all sweetness and light, but it is real — charity and sin comingled, tolerance and forgiveness in generous supply, bearing with one another and forgiving one another even as God in Christ has forgiven us. Its alternatives can be good, but they are not comparable.

  1. There’s Residential and There’s Residential

That having been said, residential is a slippery word. Neither seminaries nor our accreditors draw any formal distinction between a truly residential seminary formation experience and classroom instruction that just happens to take place in-person. A seminary could be fundamentally a commuter enterprise, part time, or even a choose-your-adventure experience, and if the classes are in-person, it can be counted as residential. But this is a far cry from on-campus housing, shared meals, a fulsome chapel participation, and navigating a non-negotiable social existence.

While community life and corporate worship may traditionally be seen as essential aspects of ministerial formation, it is fair to ask what is finally gained through life in community. Close fellowship with others and “required worship” could most certainly be counter-productive toward their putative ends. Seminary communities are not always healthy, indeed, not infrequently toxic. Seminarians — and perhaps even faculty and administrators — have ways of granting each other permission for behaviors antithetical to Christian godliness. The seminary is a temptation-rich environment, especially for such social sins as hypocrisy, contempt, anger, bitterness, and belittling. Bad habits are easily learned and hard to break. The histories of our seminaries are rife with the “works of the flesh,” as St. Paul would call them. And the seminaries have bequeathed many of these sins to the church in large quantities through the clergy trained in our institutions.

Here is a paradox: these very imperfect persons and the communities they comprise are the essential raw material from which sanctification is realized. Yet for this to be so in fact and not merely in theory presumes and requires a level of communal health — self-awareness, modeling, leadership, and intervention — so that what is not well can be made whole, albeit never perfect. Meanwhile, a healthy community is stocked with sufficient antibodies so that its inevitably considerable imperfections and toxicities do not prevail as the norm. Since every community is a chemistry experiment — seminaries a new experiment every year — this requires a level of attentiveness and intentionality difficult to maintain amid all that it takes to make the trains run on time.

It is incumbent, then, upon the seminaries that still market the singular goodness of residential formation to tend those gardens such that they bear the fruit of the Spirit — against which there is no law but with respect to which there is also no guarantee or formula, not even residential formation.

  1. Most Episcopal or Anglican seminaries will not survive as proprietary seminaries of a single ecclesial body.

As can be seen from the statistics I’ve noted, the Episcopal Church is not raising up enough seminarians to supply our current seminaries with enough students to remain viable. This was a point made emphatically by Chris Meinzer, vice president of ATS, to the deans of the Episcopal seminaries at our 2018 meetings. Only a few of us, he said, with scads of data to back up the assertion, are likely to survive if our only pool of students comes from the Episcopal Church alone. Five years later, he looks like a prophet.

It is not insignificant, indeed ironic, that the January 2018 meeting was at Trinity School for Ministry, which has a strong enrollment of ACNA students, supplemented by its partnerships with the North American Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, though at that time and even more now, with a significant decline in students from the Episcopal Church.

Here is a conundrum, however — or several. A ready solution would be to invite Anglican–Others into the same educational orbit with Episcopal students. Indeed, Duke’s AEHS, Wycliffe College, and Nashotah House have been doing this for some time with real success. At the same time, the hurts from division, depositions, property disputes, and other legal actions, and a general environment of mutual recrimination, creates a public relations challenge. The mainline constituents resent those they regard as “schismatics” or “Donatists” and “Puritans,” and the newer breakaways are no less suspicious of those they regard as “liberals” or “woke.” While these characterizations may have little to do with life on campus or what is taught in the classroom, distrust and hostilities impose themselves on the institutions’ capacity to recruit students and raise financial support. It is not hard to understand why TSM elected a disaffiliation from TEC, though it remains to be seen if this proves to be a viable choice, given the significant differences that exist even within the ACNA on issues deemed fundamental, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood.

If a mixed ecclesial economy is a necessary part of the answer, the constituencies of the seminaries able to provide this option need to give their permission, lest the wounds of the past finish their work by leaving these same constituencies bereft of centers for training their clergy. Moreover, for those of us committed to this vision, the motivation is not first pragmatic but the imperative of a gospel that reconciles once-estranged persons to one another in Christ.

Meanwhile, most of the Episcopal seminaries are not able to broaden their constituencies to Anglican–Other since these are characteristically conservative bodies with deep-seated suspicion, rising to antipathy, toward the mainstream and progressive end of the Episcopal Church represented in its seminaries. Therefore, proprietary institutions without substantial endowments funding generous scholarships are likely to meet the fate that Meinzer prognosticated in 2018.

  1. The Anglican studies programs embedded in non-Anglican seminaries are arguably the most sustainable business model, but if this comes at the expense of the Anglican seminaries, it will prove costly.

A good case can be made that Anglican programs or institutions embedded in larger seminaries or divinity schools is a promising model for the future. Yale, Duke, Candler, Princeton, among others, enjoy strong faculties across theological disciplines and the financial and prestige resources that are the envy of the smaller stand-alone alternatives. Theoretically, this could be the best of all possible worlds.

At the same time, for all the scholarly and administrative resources, it is unlikely that such institutions can finally match the tradition-specific formation characteristic of the bonded, liturgical, and peculiar communities. For starters, the offerings of the “Anglican studies” curricula typically pale in comparison to the thoroughly Anglican alternatives. A survey of websites or catalogs will show that in liturgics, Anglican history, polity, ascetical theology, sacramental theology and so on, the offerings are not comparable. Furthermore, while the diversity of perspectives offered by the trans-denominational institutions is clearly a certain kind of benefit, it is not the case that some theological subject matter is sufficiently generic such that it can be taught from any vantage without loss, while only a few disciplines are “Anglican.”

As one teaching in one of the “generic” disciplines — biblical studies — I can say without exaggeration that Anglicanism and the Catholic theological inheritance inform and even determine the syllabus of every course and directly or indirectly bear upon every lecture. For example, in our Introduction to Biblical Interpretation course, we read daily from Cranmer’s “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” and we discuss explicit and implicit hermeneutical commitments enshrined in our formularies and history. Likewise, sacraments, church order, homiletical reflection, canon consciousness, a sense for the place of Holy Scripture in the economy of salvation, an openness to the plenary senses of Scripture, a favorable regard for developments from the first century to the second and following, an awareness of Christian Wirkungsgeschichte, and so on — these comprise, for me and my biblical studies colleagues, an Anglican course in Holy Scripture. And it is not generic.

In many respects, as a “business model,” the Anglican Studies tracks or embedded programs are arguably the best model, but no one should assume that these are quite the same as an Anglican seminary — better in certain ways, lacking in others.

About The Author

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he also holds a chair as Professor of New Testament.

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