Seminaries in Jeopardy

A story came across the email this morning about the state of the Episcopal Church’s seminaries. Unfortunately, this confirms everything that I’ve been thinking and gleaning from anecdotal evidence.

  1. Standalone seminaries are become less and less viable from a financial standpoint
  2. The reduction of funds means a reduction of full-time faculty which means:
    1. Our best people are forced elsewhere because our seminaries can’t afford them
    2. Adjunct faculty become a major fallback–and they are often less qualified than the people they are replacing (Of course, I say this as one adjuncting myself…)
  3. Technology is never an answer–but it may open opportunities for creative thinking along the lines of the Disseminary
  4. Distance learning can never and will never replace the formational importance of thrice daily corporate worship

I hope to graduate in May with the intent of (eventually) teaching in an Episcopal seminary. I’m starting to wonder about the long-term viability of that plan.

22 Replies to “Seminaries in Jeopardy”

  1. Why don’t they use the Cathedrals as home bases for the seminaries? There are Deans and Canon Theologians at every Cathedral who could teach classes, couldn’t they?

    That would take care of several problems at once – in some places the Cathedrals are a bit out-of-the-way (as in New York City, for instance), and locating seminarians there would bring more life to them. And doing this would allow seminarians to become part of the daily corporate worship, which happens at Cathedrals anyway. Plus, Cathedrals could lose some of the paid positions, using seminarians instead.

  2. bls, that’s certainly something I’ve argued in the past, notably here and here.
    I think in both cases, commenters have left some good caveats to consider but I still think it’s an option worth exploring.

    Cathedral deans aren’t always qualified as academicians–but I would say that most are qualified to teach about practical realities of ministry. It’d be interesting to get some cathedral deans to weigh in on this issue with their thoughts…

  3. And of course, the Deans couldn’t teach all the classes anyway; you’d still have to have instructors. But you wouldn’t have to pay for overhead twice, and you’d have the worship environment right there as a teaching tool as well.

    And you could have many more smaller seminaries (if that would work, I don’t know), rather than 7 larger ones.

  4. I still think the cathedrals should be the central locations for training postulants with the seminaries serving as resource depots for modular courses.

    Accreditation for such a program would still remain a major hurdle though.

  5. Well, but couldn’t seminaries be housed right there, on Cathedral property? Or, couldn’t seminary courses be taught at local universities under the Religion Department, and credits be granted in two ways – one type of credit for seminarians and another for ordinary grad students or something?

  6. Well, my model would retain the current physical concept of seminaries but would see them more as think-tanks than residential campuses. Downsizing the physical plants would help support what is to be retained. I do believe there’s value in concentrating academics together to maintain a creative and collaborative environment; I’m not sure dispersing your professors to various cathedrals would necessarily help retain that.

    As for local universities and religion departments, that could get really complicated. I think a better path to pursue would be to look into the model that a primarily distance-learning kind of institution like the University of Phoenix has but beef it up with the necessary theological and integrative practical pieces.

  7. With distance learning there is no need for the college to be a local one. I think the way to go would be for a cathedral to partner with one college/university. If you are going to be trained at the Cathedral of New York then you must take some online coursework from the college/university/seminary of X. Seminaries could also offer short condensed courses, so that students who are resident at cathedrals are only on campus for say a month.

    So Derek you are basically suggesting something like Alcuin’s cathedral college at York? or Theodore of Tarsus’college at Canterbury? Theodores’s in particular seemed to have students who would come for a short time to study and then move on or return home. Well, I can only go so long without a medieval conversation…;-)

  8. Yep–that’s precisely the kind of model I was building on in the first post I linked to in the second comment.

    I would even expand the linkages. There’s no reason why one current seminary couldn’t handle several diocesan cathedrals. Furthermore, if I recall correctly, the seminaries are alreacy grouped into consortium clusters; clusters could serve not just dioceses but our provinces. Say–consortium X serves provinces A,B,C, etc…

  9. It is true that shortly ordinary people will have access to videophones and such, so you could really have classes with dispersed student bodies. (Strange that the video portion of that seems necessary, but somehow it does; I’ve done distance-learning on the computer, but it’s quite difficult, believe it or not, without the visual component.)

    Well, I really do hope the Cathedrals will come into play in this; it seems a totally logical place to start.

  10. On the medieval conversation:

    Let’s not forget Hilda’s “undergraduate college” at Whitby (as described in Bede’s History).

    The structure of early Anglo-Saxon clerical education reminds me of the Celtic model: lay formation/literacy by the parish priest, minor orders/diaconate in one monastic school (Moville for St. Columba/Whitby for some in England). St. Columba may have been unusual (or Irish) in studying with a bard for a little while but it may have been useful for learning useful ideas for preaching, legal and cultural material. Then Columba enters Clonard under Finnian and is priested, analogous to the cathedral schools at Canterbury and York (to which Hilda sent her graduates).

    Then Columba goes to Glasnevin under Mobhi (never had an idea why), though in England, didn’t the potential bishops end up studying in Gaul or Rome (Irish analogies: St. Finnian?, St. Canice??)?

    What’s funny is that the Irish monastic schools spanned a range of students. Some saints do their diaconal training at one school, whereas post-presbyteral training is described as taking place at the same school.

    Oh, wait, I get it. It’s fosterage. You go to as many of the monastic schools as possible to build clerical unity in the same way that a lay kid would be passed around to serve a thegn (England) or a ri tuath (Ireland) and build ties with all the friendly clans in the region.

  11. Speaking as one who spent 15 years observing North American graduate theological schools, I can tell you that throughout that decade and a half we were repeatedly told that seminaries were in financial crisis. But the only ones that closed were Roman Catholic seminaries that folded when their sponsoring orders or dioceses withdrew financial support. The others soldiered on.

    What has changed is that more and more theological students are not headed toward ordination. And more professors are not ordained.

    What still needs to be done is figuring out how theology should be taught and how prospective clergy ought to be formed in a changed world. Those are hard questions and many members of seminary faculties are resistant to change. And then: How is it to be paid for?

    Washington Cathedral, for one, already has a resident theological school, what used to be called the College of Preachers and is now called the Cathedral College. It seems to be struggling to figure out what its mission is and how to finance itself. So I’m skeptical that any Episcopal seminaries are going to be interested in abandoning their campuses much less joining forces with struggling cathedral education programs.

  12. The fact is that in the life of a reasonably intelligent priest, it is the SPIRITUAL formation which the semi-monastic seminary experience provides which most significantly shapes his/her future. Virtually all the academic work becomes out-dated and supplanted by new scholarship a year or so after ordination, and by about five years after, almost no “subjects” from seminary have any longer any current relevance.

    I think that one-on-one or a seminar model with a half-dozen students and a mentor or two would do the trick. After all, that worked for centuries and centuries before seminaries were invented, And I see NO sign that the present academic model produces any more effective or holier priests.

    I decided to be a priest at the age of 8, and I grew up sitting at the feet of an absolutely brilliant teaching rector (who remained rector of my home parish for 24 years), and I was actually adequately prepared for ordination by him alone before I even attended seminary (excepting, perhaps, only Greek and some practical matters like canon law, etc.).

    I also think that the idea that a three-year seminary experience is somehow complete or conclusive is pretty sad. I suspect that three or four years in a Benedictine monastery would be more advantageous. After all, St. Gregory’s Abbey and OJN have trained all their own priests over the past 20 years without sending them off to official seminaries.

  13. trueanglican, I hear what you’re saying but… Just because many haven’t closed their doors doesn’t mean that there isn’t a crisis. My day-job is in non-profit development (currently the operations side) so I have a sense of both what it takes to bring in the funding and to maintain adequate levels of funding. No, some of our seminaries haven’t closed–but maybe some should. Or at least think about consolidation. Seminaries need both money and facilities to attract the kind of professors we want molding the future leaders of the church, both lay and ordained. A question we need to be asking is whether the current levels of funding can sustain the caliber of faculty that we want teaching our people, and if not, what to do about it.

  14. I see NO sign that the present academic model produces any more effective or holier priests.

    Well–that cuts to the heart of it, doesn’t it.

    I have found myself wondering from time to time the relationship between the academic study of religion and pastoral formation. I’ve touched on that briefly in this post on preaching and patristics. I need to devote a lot more thought on it…

    At the current moment I can tell you that most of the students who arrive at the seminaries I’ve been at–and where I teach–come needing basic catechesis. They don’t need to be taught obscure forms of adjectival theology–they need to learn the Bible and the rudiments of Christian doctrine and practice.

  15. As an alum of General in NYC, I’ve always thought that moving up to the Cathedral would be a great thing, esp. since the Cathedral is now doing some new building projects on a lease-back approach. Why couldn’t General be a tenant of the Cathedral and staff its public Offices and Eucharists? It’s not like there isn’t plenty of classroom space just up Broadway at Columbia.

    And I also agree with John-Julian that it was the formation in community that was the heart of the three-year experience, at least for me. There are certainly other ways to accomplish that, but the immersion in the daily round of Office and Eucharist was and remains very important for me and I know for others as well. How to continue that in a smaller-group model would be a challenge. As for the academics, well, the classroom lectures were nice, but most of what I learned was from doing the readings and participating in the group discussions than from the lectures themselves.

    Cheers,

    RFSJ

  16. “At the current moment I can tell you that most of the students who arrive at the seminaries I’ve been at–and where I teach–come needing basic catechesis. They don’t need to be taught obscure forms of adjectival theology–they need to learn the Bible and the rudiments of Christian doctrine and practice.”

    This kind of comment frightens me even as it leaves me unsurprised.

  17. Derek’s comment, however, is similar to my own observation, revealing to my mind a lack of catechesis in our parishes. Some of us, a few, came to seminary with theology or religious studies backgrounds, but most come not even knowing the books in the Bible or the Creeds or basic commitments of their tradition.

  18. I might add that Derek’s obersvation about stand-alone sems mirrors my own as well. One of the things I notice is a huge fall off in Church support both from central headquarters of denominations and from parishes. The “civic mindedness” or in this case “ecclesial mindedness” of an institution-building generation (my grandparents) has passed and the generation following (my parents) don’t seem to have an ethic of care for our churchly institutions in this regard.

  19. I would also echo concerns about readiness of many new seminarians to actually do seminary work. That issue crosses denominational lines. In conversations among CPE educators and CPE centers, we’re seeing the same issues across the board.

    It is indeed formation that is at the heart of seminary life. At the same time, I would have some concern about simply replacing denominational seminaries with diocesan programs of “reading for orders.” I have watched such programs in five or six dioceses so far, and the results are uneven on two counts. First, curricula might meet canonical standards on paper, but the quality of instructors and of resources is not adequate. Second, the efforts of candidates is uneven, and produces uneven learning. While this is true in academic institutions as well, the focus of life and community in an institution can push all candidates to work harder. At the same time, the faculties don’t have the emotional and political stress to pass a student along that diocesan programs have. For both reasons, students can be more accurately assessed in their academic progress, while having a more engaging process of spiritual formation.

    The other value of seminaries is precisely to expose seminarians to dynamics and experiences of what it means to be Episcopalian different from their local Episcopal culture. It’s hard enough to get a student in a diocesan program exposed to the varieties of parish experiences within one diocese. It is, by and large, in the seminaries that we are exposed to the differences across the whole face of the Church. When I was a seminarian (I started 30 years ago this month), the regional difference in the Church were striking: the Low Church/Evangelical/Morning Prayer Eastern Seaboard; the Biretta Belt/Eucharistic Great Lakes; and the Broad Church/”two Sundays of each” South, just to highlight the broad categories. Those are not our issues today so much; but the best way to encounter folks of different issues and actually have to learn with them and from them is by taking them out of their normal “stomping grounds.”

    Perhaps a good interim step would be more situations like Berkeley at Yale: a center for Episcopal and Anglican formation and academics within and interacting with a larger academic seminary program. At the same time, few of our seminaries are really isolated: even my alma mater, Sewanee, as geographically isolated as it is, has interaction with Vanderbilt. However, the “Episcopal house” within the larger institution has worked well at Yale, and has worked well for other denominations (as in “Disciples Divinity Houses” at Chicago or Vanderbilt). It might be worthwhile looking that way for us.

  20. Oh, and by the way, it was a CPE student, back when I thought I wanted to be a Supervisor, who taught me that enthusiasm for the faith was no substitute for being grounded in it. If we could convince Commissions on Ministry and parish Discernment Committees of that, we’d be well on the way to maintaining the educated clergy for which we have been known.

  21. Important caveats, Marshall+; indeed, it really does take more to be a faithful minister of the Gospel than just loving Jesus and his people (though it’s quite impossible to be one without that…)

    The “Episcopal House” route may well be a way to go in the future. That’s more or less the situation we have here, but as far as I’m concerned it lacks the most essential feature–the continual corporate worship with Anglican liturgies. At most, a stripped down version of the EOW MP is offered and attended by a handful of students from across the seminary while the twice weekly all-seminary chapel services are more in the vein of experimentation than grounding in any given tradition.

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