Monday, May 28, 2007

AN OPEN LETTER ON THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION to Network Bishops and Common Cause Partners USA

Pentecost 2007

Dear Colleagues in the Gospel,

I write you about an issue close to my heart: the sustenance of orthodox Anglican theological education in the USA. As many of you know, I worked for 21 years at Trinity School for Ministry to fulfill its vision to reform and renew the Episcopal Church. Sadly, we failed. Any failure has multiple explanations, but I am convinced that one of them is the failure of conservative bishops to see the urgent need to send ALL orthodox and evangelical students to Trinity. Instead many naively accepted a pluralistic approach to theological formation. Trinity was seen as a nice new dish at the Episcopal smorgasbord, catering to certain renewal people, not the necessary remedy to a radically sick denomination.

(N.B. I am focusing on the seminary I know best, but there is a surely parallel story to be told for Nashotah House and the Reformed Episcopal seminaries. It strikes me that Trinity and the REC seminaries should naturally serve an evangelical Anglican constituency which seeks to be catholic-minded and Nashotah should naturally serve an Anglo-catholic constituency that seeks to be evangelically-minded.)

Two quiz questions will highlight the problem that blunted the kind of impact that Trinity was founded to accomplish. Which bishop refused to present the present Dean of Nashotah House for ordination because he took a job as Director of Library at Trinity? And which bishop refused to send any of his younger postulants to Trinity but sent them rather to his alma mater? Answers: two of today's most militant conservatives, now retired. I suspect these bishops now regret those decisions, but they exemplify the mindset of conservative leaders during the critical period that Trinity was getting started.

The bold and visionary action taken by the founders of Trinity in the mid-70s was never matched by bold actions in the conservative dioceses to free students to train there. All it would have taken was a bishop, standing committee and commission on ministry in one diocese working cooperatively, and Trinity could have hosted every student who wanted to be formed with an Anglican Evangelical foundation. In the early 80s the Diocese of Pittsburgh opened the door, but within a few years the liberal holdovers on the COM found a way to stanch the flow by imposing a residency requirement, with the bishop’s consent.

In 1996, I helped set up through the AAC an alternative ordination track for ministry refugees (the new bishop of Pittsburgh was to provide the conduit for this track). By that date, the horse had already fled the barn as far as any hope of reforming the church through a flood of renewed clergy. Since that time, in fact, the flow of Trinity grads has been diverted to AMiA and other Christian traditions.

Trinity’s own leaders themselves, myself included, contributed to the problem. We were na├»ve to think that accreditation (1985) would make us acceptable in the mainstream Episcopal Church. Later on, Trinity’s leaders were also too slow to recognize that AMiA and other Common Cause groups were there coming constituency, thinking that we could woo liberals to give us a few crumbs from their ordination process. But as we all know, contemporary liberals are anything but liberal. Such a hope is surely now a vain hope.

The point of these recollections is to warn that the same failure of vision may be happening today. In my occasional visits to conservative gatherings in the States, I hear people saying: “We’ve sent student X to Gordon Conwell or to Beeson or Wycliffe in Oxford.” Or “We’ve set up our own fast-track training program.” And I have asked these colleagues: “What about Trinity?” “Oh yes,” they reply, “we are willing for students to train at Trinity, but…”

“Yes, but…” is not enough. Given the fragmented condition of conservative Anglicanism in North America, such decisions are understandable. But in my opinion, as a long-term solution to building a strong and unified Anglican church, they are inadequate and ominous. Say what you may about alternative models of theological education, a good seminary (or two or three) will be vital to the growth and long-term success of orthodox Anglicanism on that continent.

I say “that continent” because I live now in Africa and oversee the flagship theological centre of the Anglican Church of Uganda. The Church of Uganda recently identified an acute clergy shortage impending and has responded by increasing the numbers attending our “Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology” (we just doubled our intake). The church in Rwanda has likewise recognized the need for a theological college, as have other Provinces. So the need and call for strong theological colleges call is not just a North American phenomenon.

So what can be done? I think a couple simple decisions and declarations could clarify matters.

  1. The Boards of Trinity and Nashotah House should announce that their primary mission is to serve the Network and Common Cause churches and that they will no longer receive students sponsored from revisionist dioceses (not a very costly decision since they won’t send students anyway).
  2. The Network and Common Cause dioceses and churches should commit themselves to require all candidates for ministry to get their degrees from Trinity or Nashotah or a REC seminary, or at least to attend for one year to instill in them a common Anglican ethos.
As bishops and leaders in Network and Common Cause churches, you have great influence in these matters. Our movement has made a tremendous investment in these seminaries, and should not squander it. I have real doubts whether these institutions can survive without strong support from the churches they were birthed to serve. These seminaries in turn must focus themselves on building up the movement. If these things happen, there is a real chance that orthodox Anglicanism can emerge as a real church like the Presbyterian Church in America (note, with its Covenant Seminary) and not just a welter of “continuing” factions. If it doesn’t, I think we are sowing the whirlwind.

Thank you for listening.

Cordially in Christ,

The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll
Vice Chancellor
Uganda Christian University

This letter appeared on the Stand Firm in Faith blog on May 27-28, 2007 and attracted a long string of very interesting responses. I wrote the following Epilogue on 1 June 2007.


Dear Friends:

Thank you for your many helpful reactions to my original piece. I am leaving Uganda and going to UK and USA for a month, and I will be offline for a few days. I am glad to see that Board and Faculty from Trinity and Nashotah have been following them and that this discussion will provide both insights and momentum in charting the future.

If I can summarize my main point in departing, I would say this: We are entering a new era of Anglicanism. The old idea of different theologies fishing from the same boat in the Episcopal Church died in the past thirty years. Interestingly, it died just as Trinity came into existence and Nashotah House was reformed to serve a more explicitly evangelical catholicism.

The appointment of John Rodgers as Acting Dean at Trinity is significant in more ways than one. First, it represents the healing of a rift within the conservative movement between those working for continued reform and renewal inside TEC and those who concluded that TEC is unreformable. Whether or not one agrees with the timing of AMiA’s departure, almost everyone now agrees that its foresight was correct. (I might add, that I recently heard one of the Global South Primates say: “When AMiA was formed, I was quite upset. I was wrong, and I want to apologize for my reaction.”)

Secondly, John Rodgers represents the pioneering spirit of those who made a visionary and missionary decision to start a new seminary in a very liberal denomination. It was visionary in that it saw the importance of forming clergy and lay leaders in order revive the Church. It was missionary in the sense of actually hoping to return the Episcopal Church to a biblical, confessional and mission-minded heritage that it had had for only a small part of its history the first half of the nineteenth century. (The history of Nashotah House as a missionary arm of the Anglo-Catholic movement and the history of the Reformed Episcopal seminaies which nurtured some of the embers of the nineteenth century Evangelicalism are other stories to be told.)

That vision succeeded but the original mission failed. Trinity did emerge as a living community and institution, which has turned out many fine priests and lay leaders. The mission failed for various reasons, including the lack of a corresponding radical commitment at the diocesan level even from conservative bishops, standing committees and commissions on ministry.

In one sense, we are back in the mid-seventies when radical action was called for. It is my argument that North American Anglican theological seminaries – at least a few of them – will be essential to a cohesive reformation of Anglicanism in North America. Indeed one might argue that they may not only serve to train leaders but also serve as ecclesial hubs for the emerging movement in a way that did not happen thirty years ago. It would appear that the rigid diocesan structures of TEC will not be replicated in the Network/Common cause movement. Nor should they be, even after there is a further coming together of the different bodies represented. In the absence of such rigid Establishment structures, learning centres may be even more important than they have been in the past. To be sure, the advent of technology and the financial necessities imposed by starting afresh may give these seminaries a new way of teaching and serving, but I do not think that includes going out of business.

That’s the gist of my argument – once again. When the AAC was founded in 1996, theological education was one of the working groups identified as crucial to reform. That has not changed. I would urge the AAC, Network and Common Cause to recommit to an ongoing discussion and action. In so doing, do not fail to recognize that in Trinity and Nashotah (and the REC seminaries) you already have fine resources on the ground for helping build the new church on your continent. And in saying “your continent,” I remind you that any new reformation of the church and education should be global in nature and scope and working closely with the churches and educational institutions in the Global South.

God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s provision,” Bishop Alfred Stanway taught us at Trinity. Despite the daunting challenges facing us, that truth abides. God bless.

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Follow-ups from Stephen

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