By Garwood Anderson
Having now provided a diagnosis of the inflection point facing theological education, including but not limited to Anglican formation, and suggested several more practically oriented considerations, in this final part, I invite us to step back and consider the bigger picture.
- The way forward is to think backwards.
By “backwards” I don’t mean a return to mythical good old days so much as starting with the end in mind. One affliction of all higher ed, possibly seminaries more than anywhere else, is that the point of reference is typically what we have done in the recent past, what we are doing now, and what we now need to do to catch up, keep up, or otherwise secure a future. This is a hamster wheel — starting with givens often followed by half-measures.
The future shape of theological education is a question that ought not be answered exclusively by what we think is possible or where we see things heading, but by what we want for the church. Sadly, many are envisioning a future for the church and for theological education whereby we meet each other at the nadir of both. It is important to know the trends, but it may be more important to defy them.
If instead of what we expect we ask what we want, the answer should be an orthodox and learned clergy, composed of holy and virtuous persons, applying wisdom and skill to advance the mission of the church. So, learned, virtuous, and skillful clergy are the order of the day and perhaps always have or should have been.
If that seems uncontroversial, I would hope so, but it could be noted that these characteristics are not found abundantly in this combination, and seminaries increasingly find more barriers toward their fulfillment than might have once been the case. As for a learned clergy, expectations have decreased as we have shortened the path through the M.Div. Most Episcopal seminaries have reduced the M.Div. to the Association of Theological Schools’ minimum of 72 credits, have eliminated requirements in biblical languages, while also having limited coursework in biblical studies, have a minimal expectation for systematic and historical theology, and have little more than the bare essentials in liturgical training. And this is the M.Div., the demanding, professional degree. Many are prepared and ordained with much less. It is even harder for most seminaries to take an active role in moral and spiritual formation. Since moral norms are not widely agreed upon, the lowest common denominator will tend toward interpersonal courtesy because it is the pragmatic necessity of the seminary community and a useful virtue in public ministry. While this is a good thing, it is not a high bar. And it no secret that many disappointing, failed, or disastrous parish ministry tenures are born in clergy character deficits.
If seminaries are doing one thing generally well, it is preparing their graduates with fundamental skills for parish ministry. The curricula reveal this priority. Yet, even here, it must be said that the breadth of skill expected or hoped for is a tall order. More significantly, the parish ministry for which they are being prepared is not directed toward the crying need of churches that are in severe decline. It is not for the ministry of church planting; it is not for turning around a declining parish from imminent hospice care back to health; it is not evangelizing the unchurched or reaching those who have given up on the Christian faith to give it yet another chance. You could not discern through our seminary curricula that we are serving a church in severe decline. Damning though it may be to say this, seminarians are not being equipped as a priority for obeying the Great Commission.
Admittedly, this is a fraught agenda. In the aftermath of the church growth movement and in view of the scandal-rocked megachurch phenomenon, Anglicanism is for many a breath of fresh air, to the extent that it eschews the desperation of trendiness and minimizes the personality cult. I would most certainly not argue for renewing a church growth movement with its tried-and-true and “what people want today” confidence in marketing and technique. At the same time, the very attraction of our tradition, with all its variations, appeals differently to its clergy and their would-be successors than it does to people in the pews — or, more pointedly, not in the pews. Where our clergy have found refuge may not be the places other people find life.
It is a comforting half-truth, if not canard, in theologically conservative circles to blame the church’s decline on the advance of theological liberals or the encroachment of progressivism. While I believe this is not without basis, it is a much too simple and self-justifying narrative and admitting far too many exceptions — failing conservatives and flourishing liberals — to work as a one-size-fits-all hypothesis. Conservatives believe that theological orthodoxy and the word faithfully proclaimed will be self-authenticating and the only hope of outlasting the winds of cultural change. Traditionalists — maybe conservative also, but of another sort — understand the cultural goods of the church, its virtues and aesthetics, as its chief donation. Progressives believe that righting the church’s longstanding wrong-side-of-history track record will show that religion is a social and political good and the church is a key component for our shared desire to make the world a better place. Yet whether through Bible preaching and catechesis, refined liturgies and glorious aesthetics, or community activism, the priorities remain institutional self-perpetuation rather than reaching and discipling lost persons — if, indeed, we think there is such a thing.
- Let’s take paths of more resistance.
While remote education and local formation should be viewed as commendably adaptive to changing circumstances, they can also be a sign of hopelessness or fatalism. Rather than valorizing convenience, accessibility, and business opportunity, we should acknowledge these paths of least resistance for the temptation they are. Perhaps we should strive toward a different target: how, acknowledging circumstances, can we together do the best, rather than the easiest, for everyone? For someone “reading for orders,” it will almost certainly be an improvement to join an accredited hybrid-distance cohort under the instruction of bona fide and seasoned educators. For those who think they can only manage an asynchronous, fully distance course of study, they should be pushed and encouraged and supported toward a low-residency alternative. They will not regret it. And for those who say a hybrid-distance or a commuter existence is all they can manage, bishops and commissions on ministry and sponsoring parishes should give every possible effort to support them toward the goods of residential formation. We should not settle for paths of least resistance if our goal is paths of discipleship.
Here I note diverging paths between two competing narratives. It is frequently claimed that there are fewer parish jobs available, especially full time, fully funded, and that what is needed are bi-vocational or non-stipendiary candidates. I don’t doubt that this is true. Just as true is the testimony of seminary deans, including me, and diocesan transition officers, that we do not have nearly enough graduates to place in the openings that come our way. While our placement rate for M.Divs. is effectively 100%; we could easily place two or even three times as many graduates as we have each year. The “there are fewer and fewer jobs” narrative is not entirely true, especially with the recent disclosure that 50% of Episcopal Church clergy will be of retirement age in the next 10 years.
Much hinges on which of these two narratives informs our choices and which data confirm our biases. If we follow the decline narrative of fewer openings, sending persons off to seminaries for a M.Div. will seem a luxury or worse. If we embrace a visionary opportunist narrative, we will call the best and brightest and stock the church with those capable of leading her into an envisioned future. This is an enactment of the proverb that “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”
It is not hard to understand why bishops and dioceses are scrambling to fill part time or bi-vocational openings for faithful parishioners whose only “fault” is having loved a parish that declined from its former halcyon days. This is good and important work, and the training of clergy open to and adequate for these tasks is important. But unless there is a supply of gifted, especially well-trained, and eventually well-seasoned clergy, most parishes will go the way of these unable to support a full-time priest, much less a team. The well-motivated drive to fill openings is not the same as preparing exceptional leaders for the future.
- Decline is opportunity.
While narratives of religious decline can be commended for their honesty, they frequently become something else. They can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy of fatalism. I am certain I am not the only one to watch congregations or even clergy throw up their hands in helplessness, taking comfort in a changing religious landscape that functions as a satisfactory explanation for the decline of their parish or diocese. Demographics, migrations, and housing patterns are also factors — possibly insurmountable. But if one looks closer, to ask what sorts of commitments have been made together — in sacrificial giving, in service, in hospitality, in openness to the sorts of change that would open our communities, and in defiance of such theological innovations as leave the church barren — if we ask whether we actually wish for a faithful and flourishing church, the answer is unclear if measured by our commitments. There are, for example, far too many parishes that have decided they “cannot afford” a full-time priest, when it is mathematically beyond dispute that a congregation that was merely tithing could afford that and launch into new opportunities.
If that is the self-justifying appeal of the decline narrative, its subtler counterpart is the self-congratulatory version. Here the decline of our church is attributed to our uniquely good taste, or our brave stances on matters of social justice, or our (environmentally conscious) slower rate of procreation and so on. Self-justification and self-congratulation are compensations for our inability to speak the truth to ourselves.
Twice recently I had the privilege of visiting Detroit. If you visited Detroit 25 years ago, you might not have used the word privilege. But the burned-out, blighted ghost town of the turn of the century is becoming a thriving, bustling, multiethnic, contemporary city that has been significantly transformed from a stay-away into a go-to city. Not everywhere, and certainly not for everyone, of course — urban redevelopment is almost always a mixed bag. But it would have been hard to predict today’s scene just 20 years ago.
One powerful force behind the transformation are the capital investments of Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball franchise, who purchased Detroit real estate at its nadir, including moving Quicken Loan employees to the new downtown headquarters in 2010; it is estimated that Detroit employees of his enterprises number over 17,000. Reportedly, he has made a $5.6 billion investment in Detroit real estate, owning over 100 downtown properties and recently pledging another $500 million toward the revivification of the city’s neighborhoods, including $15 million in overdue property taxes providing amnesty for about 20,000 homeowners. Investments of these sorts invite others to follow. And many are following suit, finding real estate, housing, and business opportunities within reach not in spite of but because of the devastating economic downturn. The decline — tragic and devastating and seemingly final — made new opportunities.
When I was considering coming to Nashotah House from a very large and prospering evangelical seminary, which has continued to flourish and grow, I discussed the decision with a sagacious evangelical friend whose advice was to “sell high, buy low.” Not an Episcopalian himself, he discerned that for all its regrettable decline and even while segments of the church despise their birthright, the bones were good. There was an opportunity, not for personal gain, but for the kingdom of God. Not underestimating the misery of decline — urban or ecclesial — the point is straightforward. The losses suffered by the Episcopal Church, even the self-inflicted wounds of recent decades, are an opportunity for those who have the eyes to discern it. And the raising up and propulsion of theologically sound, morally virtuous, skilled disciples for the next generations of clergy leadership is, or should be, this tradition’s most urgent priority. It remains for our seminaries and our churches to answer the call.
Epilogue: It would not be hard for readers to discern an underlying case for the seminary of which I happen to be the dean. Although I have tried to be fair and broad-minded in hoping for the flourishing of all seminaries and programs in the Anglican tradition, I am making the strongest case for two not necessarily overlapping groups: the five Episcopal seminaries that are holding fast to residential formation and those institutions of whatever provenance that stand most committed to the scandal of Christian orthodoxy against the external and internal pressures to detach the Christian faith from its constitutive moorings of Scripture and tradition. Nashotah House, hardly alone but especially, happens to be committed to both. In fairness, some of my criticisms of seminaries apply especially to mine, including a bent toward toxicity and a failure to charge and prepare our students sufficiently for apostolic ministry. My proposals are partially descriptive and entirely aspirational.
Second, I found that this was hard to write, not because I have a lot of ambivalence about what is called for, but because I am uncertain whether the institution with which I am affiliated will be able to fulfill the mandate or that our constituencies will sufficiently share this vision to enable us to do so. If these turn out to be the blueprints for what ends up being a half-built tower, so be it.
“We have seen a gradual drop of entrants into the priesthood over the last 12 years,” Price said. He counted 225 newly ordained priests in 2022, down from 325 in 2010, while annual clergy retirements have remained steady at about 400 a year. The gap between new ordinations and retirements has widened significantly since 2018, and about half of the remaining clergy are within 10 years of retirement.