And Then There Were Five

May 12, 2023

In the first half of this year alone we have learned of new configurations for the work of three historic Episcopal seminaries. The General Theological Seminary in New York, now closely aligned and sharing leadership with the Virginia Theological Seminary, will concentrate on a hybrid program with short-term residencies and distance learning. Something similar will also characterize the work of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, whose West Coast identity will look somewhat different given a full-hybrid model and its partnership with Trinity Church, Wall St. Most recently, the five-year partnership between the onetime Massachusetts-based Episcopal Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary in New York has been ended, apparently to allow EDS to explore its work of ministerial formation beyond the realm of degree-granting education altogether. These recent changes are not unique; Bexley-Seabury, the merger of two former residential seminaries, has been working entirely online for some years now.

While each of the specifics has attracted its share of attention, including inevitable criticism, we would do well to ask about the bigger picture for Anglican theological education in North America, and of course about our own work. If the relative lack of central planning and conversation is curious in an entity as conscious of its national identity as TEC, there is nevertheless a shared recognition among those leading these institutions, and others, of a changing set of needs for students and for the Church itself.

I have reflected before about the dangers of ecclesiastical futurology. While I am cautious about the predictions, one doesn’t need the gift of prophecy to know that going forward there will be more clergy trained in less traditional ways. Yet some assume this is a simple linear development, with the trends all running that way, and of course that is far from the truth. 

Attempts to imagine the future will also change it. In this case–three cases really– a desire to re-center and sustain the future of the institutions risks influencing the futures of the students themselves. It may also be adding too quickly to the offerings in that hybrid sector in particular, or actually shifting the weight of demand in that direction, or even to non-degree programs; we shall see.

Those seminary programs that continue their work through residential community will nevertheless continue to train more seminarians than those working with other models. While the process is often referred to as expensive, in quite a few cases financial aid is more generous than ever–our own students are typically receiving full tuition scholarships and stipends. Right now, Berkeley is preparing for its largest entering class in seven years (well over 20), and probably the most diverse ever, meaning that the number and quality of those seeking our particular formational possibilities are very significant.

We need not lack sympathy and solidarity with colleague institutions in order to be clear–even clearer than before, in fact–that even if the virtues of residential or place-based education are not an absolute necessity or possibility for every single person discerning, they are absolutely necessary and entirely possible for a Church whose need for an educated and well-formed clergy is, if anything, growing deeper at present. We hope and pray that the new developments for our partners will bear fruit abundantly–and we have a garden here to till ourselves.

We are conscious here of working in and for a changing reality too, however. The mission we are called to in the present and future requires attention to the changing reality of those who need to hear the Gospel; the institutional Church cannot see its continuation as either inevitable or self-justifying. Our work to recruit and support more diverse students more adequately, both materially and otherwise, continues to be central at BDS. Our new Transforming Leaders program reflects a commitment to working beyond the residential and degree-granting experience, not instead but as well, given that clergy and other leaders need continued support to grapple with rapid change in faith and hope. The initial response to our first programs this June has been far beyond expectations, and gives a clear indication that this work is both welcome and urgent.

And there is our own place. While we live in the New Haven and Yale communities, the existence of a distinct center to house our common prayer and other distinct programs, complementing the other places that we share with our partners here, has remained fundamentally important. Indeed, as the changing realities for formation become clearer, the importance for our work of the Berkeley Center has only become more stark. It is thus exciting that the possibility for renewal of the Center, in a way that will preserve its character and enhance its utility for our expanded vision, is coming closer. This is the “spot,” in Newman’s terms, where our students will continue to gather daily to form lasting friendships, to support each other in intellectual and spiritual exercises, and to go out equipped to the other places to which God calls.