GC2009: Seminaries Must Be Funded to Train Next Generation
By Fr. Todd Wetzel
July 12, 2009
Two bishops and a parish priest made the case yesterday afternoon at the press conference that residential three-year seminary education is not a prerequisite for parish ministry. It is alarmingly symptomatic of the kind of shallow thinking that regularly inhabits these "church" gatherings.
Their thinking was that people can be effectively trained in the local parish with the supplement of on line computer courses. On first hearing, this seems reasonable given the expanding costs of higher education, the time required (three to four years) and the fact that many vocational decisions are now being made later in life often following a failed marriage, a prior career or retirement. What is wrong with this kind of thinking?
First, let's try an analogy. While doctors receive critical training through internship and residency, that training builds on a foundation gained at a medical school which is highly academic and teaches the vocabulary of medicine.
It is the internal "dialogue" between the thinking formed in medical school and the practical experience of the profession which makes the person a "doctor." Anyone can cut. We trust doctors to do so because they know the "why" the "where" and the "how to" of it. Anyone can give you a pill, we trust doctors to do so because presumably they have formed a diagnosis and the pill is being given as at least a partial address to our health problem.
Does anyone seriously believe we should return to the bloodletting of "barbers" or philosophical thinking about health absent scientific reasoning? Medical schools were initiated to correct these problems. Similarly, priests receive critical pastoral training through internship and residency in the early years of parish ministry, which we call the deaconate, and that training builds on a foundation gained at a theological school (seminary) which is highly academic and teaches the language of theology and ecclesiology.
Clergy are formed in seminary and when combined with the practical experience of parish ministry the person becomes a "priest."
Anyone can perform the actions at the altar that compose the Eucharist. Anyone can say the daily office or the words of absolution. We trust priests to do so presumably because they know the "whys," the "how to" and the theological basis for doing so.
Anyone can give advice, we trust priests to do so because they are trained, experienced, knowledgeable and accountable to a bishop, fellow priests and a vestry.
Does anyone seriously maintain that we should return to priests of the Dark or Middles Ages who were indigenous but could neither read, nor write? Many were beloved but they contributed and survived in a sea of ignorance punctuated only occasionally by the visit of an articulate Dominican preacher or the rare visit of a diocesan bishop.
Seminaries were created to correct this low estate of parish ministry. Seminaries have traditionally performed three functions. One, to impart the historical and philosophical foundations necessary to sound theological thought. For the seminarian, the church becomes extra-parochial and the seminarian is put in touch with the Church unrestricted by geography or time.
Two, to provide a residential and communal basis in which spiritual formation can take place and spiritual disciplines may be appropriated. Such training can and often does sustain a priest during a dismal period of parish ministry. And three, to teach the application of Biblical and theological thought to current events and practices. This is helpful in keeping the church from becoming a captive of the culture. Seminaries vary in their competency just as medical schools do.
But when they do their job well, a foundation is provided upon which a faithful parish ministry can be built. When bishops and clergy nay-say their seminary training or the value of seminary trained clergy, they are not serving the church well. A fellow parishioner can provide spiritual advice or marvelously intone the daily office and can even be aided by on line education.
While bishops have always been free to ordain whomever they will, said ordination does not produce clergy (those who hold degrees in divinity) or competent priests. Removing the experience of residential seminary from the training of priests represents short term thinking that solves only short term needs (questions of time and money) at the expense of first rate service before our God and King.
Regrettable the views of Lexington Bishop Stacy Sauls that priests can be trained in the parish with the assistance of online computer courses produces a second class priesthood that elevates the authority of the local bishop and diminishes the effectiveness of the local priesthood.
Without a professionally trained priesthood, priests will be reduced to reading sermons prepared by bishops inevitably no better trained than themselves and terrified at the prospect of an episcopal visitation since their jobs exist strictly at the whimsy of the local bishop.
If seminaries lack students, it may not be because of the seminary experience but because bishops have given in to online training. Do we have too many seminaries? If costs are viewed as too high, it may be because our sights are too low.
Do we lack the vision to redouble efforts to fund seminary education? Priests are not formed in front of computer screens but on their knees in chapels surrounded by fellow students tuning up to the Word of the Lord.
This General Convention, like others I've attended before, can and should be faulted for failing to pay attention to the basics. How priests are educated and trained is certainly one of those basics. No parish should settle for anything less than a well trained seminary graduate. To settle for less is to take the first steps back to a dark future.
--- The Rev. Todd H. Wetzel is Executive Director of Anglicans United & Latimer Press. He is based in Dallas, Texas.
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