Why Seminary?

As many of you know, I am working on a book that looks at the declining enrollments at residential seminaries. My interest in the topic precedes the latest row at GTS. In 1998-99 I was placed in charge of the Graduate Theological Union’s reaccreditation, which gave me a very specific place from which to view its nine seminaries and (at the time) twenty-one research institutes. But in 1998 I still considered myself a historian. Now for the past eleven years I have been teaching economic theory and history at UC Berkeley. My perspective has changed, not a lot, but somewhat, since 1998.

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One of the things that strikes me as I think about seminary is that seminaries are hybrids. We are familiar with the schools of Athens, at least Aristotle’s Lyceum and Plato’s Academy. And we are familiar from post-exilic diaspora literature of the “schools” of rabbinic teaching. Acts 15 offers a perfect example where “apostles and other leaders” gather to hash out whether non-Jewish believers need to be circumcised. But it doesn’t quite rise up to the standard of Aristotle’s curriculum at the Lyceum. Not by a long shot. And, yet, a direct line can be drawn from the so-called “Jerusalem Council” to the fourth century councils during which bishops and other learned disciples compared notes on what they had learned from the communities in their diocese. Their Nicene Creed might justifiably be viewed as the product of a learned seminar — the outcome of a deep and often cantankerous conversation over “well, then, what exactly do we believe?”

But the Nicene Council was not a seminary; not yet.

Seminaries preserve, germinate, and disseminate the “semen,” the seed. They, literally, inseminate those who pass through them. And, so, it is worth wondering with what seminarians are inseminated; is this rape or is it a more mutual, consensual engagement? Why is seminary?

Here is my thought. I think that seminaries are pre-conciliar. They introduce future ministers to all — yes, all — of the councils of the past, where women and men of faith wrestled with matters that the faithful, from all diocese, felt worth wrestling with. It is less important that they fall on one side or the other of these ongoing discussions than that they join the discussion, that they recognize its participants as members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and that they are prepared to relate these discussions — yes, all of them — to the communities to which they are being called. But, it is not only the discussions that inseminate our seminarians. Seminarians are also introduced to practices and ways of seeing that transport them out of their isolated communities and into the communities of Christians spread out across time and space.

Seminaries are places where ministers in training meet and learn about all of these past discussions and where they learn about all of the different ways Christians have been Christians over time.

So, what might it mean for us to attenuate this process, streamline it, pare it down, trim off the fat? What is the fat?

Of course, in some traditions it is felt that I meet Jesus here and now, completely, at this very moment, in my highly personal and private encounter with God’s Spirit. Some traditions broaden and constrain this highly personal and private encounter by requiring that it conform to encounters attested to in Holy Scripture, but nothing more. My own Episcopal tradition is equally interested in the places and times, both of those who composed the Sacred text and of those who interpret it. And so we say that our own experience is informed by Scripture, Tradition, and (obviously) by our own (and others’) interpretations. But, even this leaves the question open: where is the fat? What body of commentaries should we eliminate? What communities’ experiences are no longer valid? Who are we going to eliminate from the discussion? What debate, in our view, do seminarians no longer need to know?

These are questions that institutional heads, trustees, and institutional patrons need seriously to raise both for themselves and for the parishes served by their graduates. What part of Church are you ready to eliminate? What voices do you want silenced? How small and insular and self-obsessed can Catholic be and still remain “Catholic” (i.e., universal)?

Our seminaries are struggling to meet inconceivable budget constraints. Yet, might I propose that the solution is not to place constraints on the instruction we provide for seminarians. The solution is to share our deep and comprehensive vision with the patrons of our communities who have every reason to desire their success. Our seminaries need a full and fuller offering of historians, theologians, musicians, philosophers, and preachers to plant the seed of emancipation in a new generation of ministers. Even to raise the question “Where is the fat?” is a question that ought to make every donor shudder. Because the answer is: this is not fat. It is life. It is salvation.

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