Towards a Teleological Theological Seminary III

Tony SigA long time ago I “started” one of the likely millions of neglected blog series in which I was hoping to address theological education:  It’s needs, it’s shortcomings, it’s potential and future(s).  Being inspired by several posts of late I wanted to take this series up again.  The possibility of re-configuring theological education is something that I take rather seriously and am passionate enough about to consider strongly participating in in my future.

A quick review:

  • In one post I said that so-called “ecumenical” seminaries are overrated.  If your priesthood is concerned with apostolic succession and sacramentology then it makes no sense to take the majority of your education in a Baptist school, though for “us” the “Anglican Year” is a brilliant stroke that lessens the ambiguity of ‘ecumenical’ schooling.  School for your denomination and theology is what I say.
  • In another, in answer to the musings (I and II) of Pastor Carol Merritt I replied that, No, we cannot afford educated clergy, but neither can we afford uneducated clergy; so we’ve got to find a way to do both.

Having laid a framework with these two statements I would like to build on it.  Having said what I think about “ecumenical” seminaries, from this point forward I speak as an Episcopalian to Episcopalians but I would hope that what I write would not be relegated relevant to Episcopalians only.  In fact I think that much of it could be highly relevant for most fellowships as most are facing financial setbacks and serious issues of a lack of Christian identity.

There is a place, a VERY important place, for “research” institutions in the Church, but I’m not convinced that every seminary should be such an institution, or at the very least, we should not be expecting all or even most of our seminary professors to be on the forefront of modern academic theology; writing articles for “Modern Theology” and composing exhaustive tomes of critical work.  It seems to me that there is a near anti-christian pace of academic-theological anxiety: “Publish, Publish, Publish!”

For most seminaries, the training of priests should be the single most important task to which everything else is secondary.

I would greatly appreciate any and all input especially for those who have been through seminary, are in it now, are teaching for one or who are soon to attend.



  1. I went to the GTU in Berkeley, for an M.A., not an M.Div. But most of my education there was more like an M.Div and not research-oriented. Even the research classes had a strong ministerial slant to them. So while disappointing for me at the time, it did turn me on to thinking about ministry. Also, the divide between research and ministry aren’t necessarily far from one another, unless, as you aptly put it, the focus is “publish, publish, publish!”

    Totally agree with you, though, that seminary is waaaaaay overpriced but that it is waaaaaaay necessary (I sacrifice elegance for parallelism, sometimes!)

    I personally enjoyed the ecumenical nature of the GTU, but not everyone did. I learned a lot about the Reformation, for instance, when it was taught by a Jesuit priest. It was also a Jesuit who challenged me when I suggested that I might be outside the realm of orthodoxy. He basically said, “You think too much of yourself” in that really nice, kindly way old priests can do.

    I dunno. Then there’s part that thinks we’d be better served, as priests, to take a couple of theology classes, a couple of pastoral counseling classes and then spend the next two years working with a group of teaching priests as mentors. I think that’d be way more valuable.

    When your bishop, if you wanna set that up, I’ll sign up to be a mentor. The question being whether you’d assign any to me (assuming I eventually am ordained!).

    Good, critical thoughts.


  2. Thanks for the input. I hope to communicate that by eschewing “ecumenical” theology I don’t mean that we put blinders up and shut out theologies that are different; but I don’t find a “supermarket presentation” of all “options” to be anything like formational as theological education ought to be. It’s more like capitalism or consumerism than catholicism.


  3. David,

    How would you have felt about a “reading list” about which you would write glorified book reports to educated priests and professors for interaction? It seems less “personal” than education should be but perhaps it is something that can supplement education…it’s not like with many of our schools shutting down for lack of money we have a ton of “options.”


  4. Actually, I took as many directed reading courses as possible. I feel like I learned and grew from that kind of setting more than my classroom setting. I think I benefit more from very small groups, because they seem (in my experience) to be more about mutual learning than about showing off who’s got the biggest theological, well, you know.

    But I’ve always learned better from close watching others (i.e. watching, shadowing, mentored by a priest) than other ways. It’s why I was attracted to journalism.

    Get back to this more later, hopefully, but the young one is screaming.


  5. I got an M.Div. from Duke and am doing “Anglican studies” at Nashotah (and I’m continuing on for a Ph.D. next year). Nashotah is exactly the kind of seminary model you celebrate: it is focused entirely on the formation of priests. In this sense it is much better than Duke Divinity could ever be. Duke was wonderful academically, and I don’t regret being there for a second, but so often it presented a cafeteria approach to theology that may be helpful for developing scholars but not so great for forming priests. This is not to say that I think we need more “practical” seminary classes (though that is sometimes the case: Duke was very good at teaching preaching, but abysmal at teaching liturgy… whereas here you can’t graduate without performing a suitable “dry mass”), but simply that ordinands need to have the basic tools of the Christian theological and ministerial tradition on which to build for the rest of their lives (and in this aspect learning the fathers is much more important in the long run than learning the latest technique for running a vestry meeting).

    There does need to be room, I think, for a more “academic” vocation, however. The Jesuits have always done a good job of fostering that. Among Episcopal seminaries, the school-within-a-school that was Berkley at Yale served that function — how well it actually does that right now is another question. Duke’s Anglican Episcopal House of Studies also has such a potential vocation, which is to provide for a more “seminary” feel in an academic divinity school. Whether this works in the long run is anybody’s guess, but I think it a worthy pursuit, and quite possibly more appealing as well as institutionally viable than having totally separate seminaries.


  6. Sam,

    Greetings, welcome to the blog! You’re absolutely right, I actually planned on pointing to Nashotah as an archetype. I visited last fall for the “visiting days” and found it a joy.

    That being said there are a few things that still trouble me about Nashotah.

    1) It is just too damned expensive.

    2) It hasn’t done much to contribute to the life-blood of the wider Episcopal church to the point that they are viewed with suspicion even by some moderate bishops. This reputation has got to be slightly and ambiguously helped when one takes into consideration the number of students from “Continuing Anglican” churches.

    Partly this reputation is wrong and I realize that. I found that the some (definitely not all!) of the students were more staunchly “conservative” in a “Stand Firm” kind of way; but actually all the professors and staff I met were spectacularly generous in disposition and steeped in the Anglican Catholic tradition (excepting the OT prof who was a Baptist- but still a great guy).

    I would love to see Nashotah “plug into” modern & creative streams of Anglican Catholic theology (ie-++Williams, John Milbank). It would take a risk as some of it is positive in it’s stance on homosexuality, but from a school who has such a rich relationship with “liberal catholicism” via ++Michael Ramsey it could work wonders for TEC.

    I would love to exchange emails about Nashotah and Anglicanism if you’re interested. My email address in in the “About Us” page linked at the top of the site.



  7. Adhunt, could you go into more detail about your ideal seminary and it’s goals?

    Also, what would you say about a place like Union in Berkeley, with each tradition having it’s own seminary while facilitating dialogue between them? It looks pretty ideal to me (aside from the cost, of course.)

    I have a friend who wants to go to Union, so if anyone here has any opinions on it I’d love to hear them.


    1. Jordan,

      I hope to address that a bit more in the future. I don’t think there can be a single model that will do for “the Church” all of what the Church needs. So something like Union sounds rather fruitful. Similarly, we need a “General Seminary” or seats of academic work. But I think there could be a proliferation of smaller schools, perhaps some of them establishing new priestly “Orders” (Order of Hooker?) that would be small and focused mainly on training priests than in voluminous academic output.

      I hereby swear to expand this soon.


      If you’ll notice I said that despite not being able to afford to educate clergy in a classical style, it is imperative that we do. So I don’t mean to imply that priestly training wouldn’t be academic, it would and should be, but the “institution” itself does not need to be so large as to employ large squads of PhD students and research professors.


  8. I want to piggyback on the comments about Duke. How does an ecumenical seminary teach liturgy well? It is (theoretically) a Methodist seminary, and in the US we Methodists are a very mixed bag liturgically. The second largest group there is Baptists, for whom ‘liturgy’ is a dirty word. The Anglicans are a rising tide – partly because you get the feel of Catholicism while still getting to be married and go to parties on the weekend – but still a small group at Duke. Duke is academically rigorous, but I think of the “academic” Divinity schools it is theologically and practically the most oriented towards preparing pastors for parish ministry. Perhaps those of you who long for a “seminary” approach aren’t familiar with all of the Bible College and fundamentalist seminary grads I’ve met – they are quite committed to Jesus and the Bible, but their theology is usually garbage. But perhaps that is too much of a Southern perspective.


  9. p.s. Sam,

    I think I was slightly unclear in the language I used toward the end of my response. I don’t mean to imply that Nashotah must embrace a “liberal” “stance” on gays but just that they critically engage with the (for desperate want of a better term) “modern world” the way that Charles Gore and Michael Ramsey did.


  10. Size can be a problem for seminaries. In many ways my seminary education was less satisfying than my undergraduate because of the difficulty of having a personal relationship with the professors, whose attention is largely given to graduate students and their own publishing. But still, the best scholars will by and large be attracted to large institutions (wait! theologians are driven by the forces of the market economy, too?! say it ain’t so, boss…), which by and large attract grad students to them as well.

    It is a balance. Most of my best professors had been pastors at some point, and potential priests and pastors desperately need to learn from the experience of elders. I actually think systems of mentoring – field/contextual education and the like – are some of the most important parts of the seminary education. It was certainly quite formative for me.


  11. Well (sorry I didn’t see the followup comments till now), in terms of money, Nashotah is a hell of a lot cheaper than Duke was. I came here resolved not to take out any more student loans, and with House work-study, diocesan and parish support, I’ve been able to do it so far. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m not in any more debt. Obviously not everyone has that kind of church support, but honestly I think that’s more where the problem is… if anything smaller seminaries can be more expensive without the institutional backing of universities. I don’t know how you’d make it cheaper. The annoying thing is that churches expect people to go to them but don’t help them pay for it. This is part of the larger socio-economic problems of the Mainlines…

    On Nashotah, the wider church, etc.: I understand that Nashotah went through a very bad time in the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s only beginning to recover. It is, from what I understand, much better off than the other Episcopal seminaries, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t struggling. The bishops who you’d think would be very positive about it (e.g. the “communion partner” bishops) largely aren’t, but that has less to do, I think, with its more conservative stance than with its recent history. (There are a lot of other things to say about this, some of which I don’t really want to say here, so I’ll shoot you an email.)

    In terms of theological engagement, I’m not sure what to say. Nashotah is “classical” in the sense that it is much more focused on forming good priests than it is with dealing with current controversies or the latest theological books. For that I think you need to go to a place like Duke, where you can read both the fathers and +Rowan. Here… I just don’t know how we’d have time to do it.

    But I think I get what you mean. Despite the fact that we pray for him every day at mass, Rowan Williams’ name around here tends to evoke unreflected scorn (though I think most have never read him). That worries me. But any whiff of “papalism” tends to evoke the same kind of scorn. So as an Anglo-papalist fan of Rowan Williams, I’m in a distinct minority, and one hardly comprehensible to most. But Lord knows I wouldn’t think of going to one of the other Episcopal seminaries: my adherence to traditional Catholic doctrine (including Catholic teaching on the sacrament of order) would have me branded immediately as a dangerous bigot. At Duke one can get by as long as one doesn’t discuss certain taboo subjects, but that is because the community is large enough and non-sacramental enough that such things don’t come up.

    There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of the seminary confusions and problems are due in no small part to the current disarray that is Anglicanism and the particular disorders in North America: how can we have stable institutions if we can’t manage to disagree without suing one another? I think that the Episcopal Church is mired deep not merely in theological conflict but in radically different questions as to its basic polity (e.g. ACI vs. the PB). Right now, unfortunately, all of our internal institutions are clearly aligned with one faction or another (i.e. Nashotah and Trinity with the “conservatives” and all the other schools with the “progressives”). This is why I think places like Duke are uniquely suited for bridging some of those divisions.


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