By Steven Charleston
The recent announcement that Seabury-Western will cease its degree granting program caught many people by surprise. Once the news soaked in, it also brought many people to a quite place for pensive reflection on the state and future of seminary education in our church. In effect, in saying farewell to “Seabury” (at least in its traditional form) we are reminding ourselves that in today’s economic reality we can take nothing for granted.
Whether we like to think about it or not (and Deans have to think about it all the time) education is a business. As much as we talk about spiritual formation and academic rigor: the bottom line is that none of these things will occur if we can not pay for them. The demise of a fine school like Seabury-Western underlines that point. And to make matters harder, current economic predictions tell us that nearly 40% of existing seminaries will follow Seabury’s path in the near future.
For a small denomination like ours, the economic realities of supporting several schools, while students wrack up crippling debt even before they are deployed, should make planning for the economic strategy of education a priority. Currently, the Council of Deans, the Presiding Bishop, faculty and others are all engaged in a dialogue to chart a more comprehensive approach to leadership development through our seminary network. As those recommendations and daydreams make their way through channels, it would be wise for every concerned Episcopalian to become informed about the issues and, more importantly, actively engaged in helping develop solutions.
Out-sourcing the training of our own leadership, even if it saves money, is not a long term answer for the future of ECUSA. We need to build on the foundation of scholarship, critical inquiry, Anglican spirituality and pragmatic application that have been core to our intellectual history as a faith community. We need to preserve our unique identity and heritage. We need to do so by developing a new model for a national seminary system that allows each member school to be distinctive in what they offer, while integrated in how they are supported.
While we may be distracted by all of the politics swirling around Lambeth this summer, I hope that we do not forget to consider the experience of Seabury-Western and how it is a wake up call for us to be committed to theological education in this church. Our purpose is not nostalgia, a desire to keep traditional schools going no matter what, but rather mission, a need to adapt and grow. Seminaries are the canaries in the mine for ECUSA. They represent the cutting edge of our creativity, credibility and community. If our seminaries are showing signs of health, then so is the church. If not, then not.
I will miss Seabury-Western, as it once was. But if I want to honor this community, I should not forget what it always strove to do: give ECUSA the best leadership possible. That is the legacy we need to preserve, not just for the sake of a memory, but for the hope of a future.
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church. He has written many articles on both Native American concerns and spirituality.