April 20, 2014

On Orthodox Christian Theological Education in America

From St. Vladimir’s Seminary:

Teaching for the Future: Frs John and Chad reflect on a stormy summer

Theological reflection and education is essential for the life and future of the Church. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). The vision of Christ himself, and how we are his body, enables us to pass through the storms of this world and move into the future. Theological education in the US has recently become the subject of controversy, division, and manipulation. However, turbulence can also signify new possibilities and new life. As we learn to discern the times, we must consider:

* Diversity in Unity
* A Comprehensive Plan
* Responsible Stewardship

Diversity in Unity

One of the glories of Orthodoxy in the western world is the richness of the diversity of its lived expressions. Orthodox Christians live together, work together, and learn to see each other as members of the one Body of Christ in a specific geographical region. However, in the U.S., different traditions, developed over centuries around the world, are here in one country, flowing into an incomparable experience of Orthodoxy. The recent Chambesy proposal suggested a way to recognize this diversity and to preserve it as we move, as we must, towards greater administrative unity.

Those involved in theological education in this country have to learn how this diversity can not only be valued in theory but experienced in practice by all students, in whose hands lie the future of our Church. We have three ATS-accredited schools in North America – Holy Cross, St. Tikhon’s, and St. Vladimir’s – each with its own valuable tradition and character. However, diversity between schools, rather than within each school, all too easily creates an unhealthy polarization or rivalry between schools. And this leads to students, the future priests and lay leaders of our churches, having little knowledge of each other and little desire to learn. Nothing is more divisive for our future. We fear that division, based upon cultural or ethnic differences, is becoming more prevalent in North America, and it is regarding this that we would voice our greatest concern.

At St Vladimir’s Seminary, we have been committed to a truly pan-Orthodox vision for this country. If our life has been too Slavic for some, there is nevertheless a place, and an increasing one at that, at the Seminary and its chapel for a fully educated expression of Byzantine life to enrich the campus and form students of all the different traditions represented on our campus. This is something that we desire and promote. Likewise, we hope to find ways of working more closely with our sister school, Holy Cross, and the Antiochian House of Studies, to see what we can do together, in an open conversation that leads wherever God may take us.

A Comprehensive Plan

All those involved in theological education in North America need to develop a comprehensive plan for all aspects of the task of education.

For decades now, the seminaries in North America have been content to take their teachers from secular or Roman Catholic Universities on this continent or abroad. We need to take responsibility for this task: we cannot simply abdicate the responsibility of preparing our future teachers for our students to others. Certainly, future teachers need to be forged in the crucible of academia more generally, to be tested, ‘proved’, in the intellectual debates of the day, so that they can adequately address incoming students, and so that those students in turn can be adequately prepared to bear witness to Christ in whatever environment they find themselves. But we must still take responsibility for this formation. Can we pool our resources so that we, together, can provide such doctoral level instruction?

We should also think more about forms of education other than the traditional Seminary M.Div. There has been a lot of discussion regarding undergraduate education. Can Hellenic College broaden its vision and appeal to minister to a wider audience? In order to supplement their incomes, our future priests and/or their spouses often need to take other forms of employment for which they will need appropriate qualifications. Can we pool our resources to provide such qualifications?

Can we also pool our resources so that, together, we can undertake further tasks that we each perform only partially now? These tasks include continuing, long-distance, and on-line education; continuing pastoral education for our priests (the only professionals who are not currently obliged to continue taking educational programs periodically); diaconal training programs; missionary training programs; youth ministry, prison ministry, old-age ministry; chant, choir, and choir director programs.

We must also take our responsibility towards our Oriental Orthodox brethren seriously. Although communion does not now exist between us, our kinship is such that our schools are the most natural place for the education of their future leaders. For decades now, St Vladimir’s Seminary has had a close relationship with St Nersess’ Armenian Seminary, (a relationship which has recently become more formalized in accordance with ATS provisions). There is much more to do, and many more fields ready for harvest. Can we pool our resources so that we can eventually form, together, a powerhouse of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox scholars that could provide an unparalleled educational consortium?

Responsible Stewardship

Developing a comprehensive approach to theological education will make us better stewards of the resources entrusted to us by the faithful across the country. To be blunt, having three schools, in the North East, each duplicating each other’s operations – campuses, libraries, single and married student housing, administrative support, faculty – is not good stewardship.

We are each pursing the same goal of running accredited M.Div. (perhaps also M.A. and Th.M.) programs for a similar size student body. Our time, energy, and limited financial resources are drained in duplicated efforts, leaving none of us enough time, energy, or financial resources to undertake the projects described above.

It is no secret that we are still in a harsh economic climate. It is one that has forced a number of schools to merge or to close. However, as we noted at the beginning, it is often in times of turbulence that new possibilities emerge, that new life begins.

The possibilities are indeed manifold. Whether it is a cataclysmic storm or whether it is a God-given moment of opportunity depends on our own attitudes and how we use our talents. Can we be open to conversation, discussion, and to stepping into the unfamiliar terrain that is the future?

We are part of a diverse and ancient Church, and theological education concerns us all. Therefore, we invite you to join this discussion on the discussion forum that will be opening up soon on this site. Let’s talk…

The Very Rev. John Behr is Dean and Professor in Patristics, and the Very Rev. Chad Hatfield, is Chancellor [CEO] at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Comments

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    Fr. John A. Peck says:

    May I suggest a collaboration with the following: Preachers Institute

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