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General Theological Seminary

Learning from General Theological Seminary

General Theological Seminary
If I write anything specific about the mess at General Theological Seminary (GTS) I am bound to be wrong about something – probably about most things.

General Theological Seminary “is a seminary of the Episcopal Church in the United States located …in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. Founded in 1817, GTS is the oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church and a leading center of theological education in the Anglican Communion.”

Many will be well aware that there are complicated things happening at General Theological Seminary. Certainly there is an ongoing dispute between faculty and the relatively-new Dean and President, The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle. Versions available include that the faculty have resigned, or have had their tenure terminated. Many have added to the online (mis)information, including Board members. There’s plenty of reporting and reflecting.

The faculty have set up a website, twitter profile, and facebook group.

What I want to reflect on is that behind, and in, and around whatever is happening at GTS is the changing context of and for clergy training, study, and formation. We can see some of this shift at GTS. One of Dean Kurt Dunkle’s big initiatives was to institute a ‘Wisdom Year‘ – a program that sends third-year seminarians into parishes and so forth to minister and come back to the classroom to reflect on this ministry.

New Zealand Anglicanism has had its own strong controversy around St John’s College, our only residential seminary. It took no less than the highly-respected Sir Paul Reeves, previous archbishop and Governor General, to present a report to General Synod Te Hinota Whanui about the issues at our seminary.

One difference between NZ Anglicanism and USA’s Episcopal Church (TEC) is that the former carefully keeps no church-wide statistics. I (a half a planet away) can easily pull up TEC’s ordinations for a decade and see where they were trained:

Virginia Theological Seminary: 439/ 21%
General Theological Seminary: 316/ 15%
Sewanee: 242/ 12%
Berkeley Divinity School at Yale: 205/ 10%

No one in NZ can do that for NZ’s Anglican ordinations. In fact, it would be difficult to do this within many individual dioceses here.

When I was accepted to train for the priesthood (about two and a half decades ago; yes, there were exceptions, but) the understood norm was that you spent three years at St John’s College, after which you had at least two years curacy in a parish with a highly-experienced priest, after which, with ongoing training, you might be a vicar in a small parish; and experienced priests continued with life-long appraisal… All that has gone. Best guess is that less than 10% of clergy are trained at St John’s College, and then often for only one year. The average age of curates in my diocese is over 50 years old. Many ministers transfer from other denominations in which they have followed that denomination’s training and formation (Salvation Army, Pentecostal Churches,…).

Clergy are not alone in changes in training. Many people now study using distance possibilities, and online options.

My contention continues to be that, however we provide academic study and training for clergy (and I am a strong advocate for rigorous academic study), the spirituality and pastoral formation of clergy needs to be ‘experiential’. A community experience with a worship and spirituality focus, at least for one year, I think should be the norm.

Without a solid foundation in spirituality and community worship, I think clergy have little to offer within and beyond the ministry unit they lead.

And pastoral experience needs also to be in a context of involvement in and reflecting on real events.

One vision that heartens me is Archbishop Justin’s Community of St Anselm. I hope that this is efficacious, and becomes a model for a new foundational norm for Anglican clergy formation in the 21st century.

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18 thoughts on “Learning from General Theological Seminary”

  1. “I am bound to be wrong about something – probably about most things.” An interesting comment to begin your article.
    It saddens me greatly that there are so many media postings with totally incorrect reports. It also saddens me greatly that such overtly childish scraping is happening in one of the most esteemed Christian institutions.
    It saddens me greatly that the Episcopal authorities in the US appear to be doing to little to assist.
    “See how these Christians love one another.”
    I have, for want of a better expression, insider knowledge on this issue – only to be told to shut up and not interfere: “you don’t know what you are talking about.” If I am a member of the Church is it not my right to freedom of Christian speech?

  2. Padre, what is the capacity of St John’s College, is it an undergraduate college or a graduate level institution. In the US, Canada and Mexico the expectation of most mainline churches and synagogues is that their clergy attain an undergraduate degree, a bachelors degree (4 years) in the US and Canada, a licenciatura in Mexico (3, 4 or 5 years) and then a masters level degree at a seminary. Usually if not at a seminary associated with the denomination, then also with completion of a unit of additional study pertaining directly to being clergy of the denomination.

    1. As I understand it, Br David, and I’m very happy to be corrected, those at St John’s College are pursuing a number of options, undergraduate and graduate. The website is here. When I was there, the norm was a complete series of lectures (at least for 3 years), and a full complement of lecturers, with Anglicans in partnership with Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics. Having participated in the lectures, one could sit examinations for a Licentiate, or for a degree. My understanding is that this is not how things are now. The College offers a one year course called “Anglican Studies“. Others resident at the College facilities appear to be able to pursue a distance qualification from Otago (at the extreme other end of the country) or maybe some attend Auckland University for a theology degree there. But, as I have already pointed out, going to St John’s is not the norm. Blessings.

  3. Hi Bosco and Bro David,
    The very latest from SJC is that:
    (a) all students, whether previously degreed or about to begin a theological degree, undertake Anglican Studies for the first year (to form a ‘cohort’ which continue together through the remaining years);
    (b) the first year of Anglican studies is designed to be cross-credited to the Otago B.Theol. so second year at SJC means second year of B. Theol. [more or less, I guess some things may depend on precise subject choices];
    (c) the former School of Theology at Auckland University is winding down into some theological subjects within the religious studies department; thus an Auckland B.Theol. is not an option for SJC students;
    (d) exceptions to the above could be students who are sent by their dioceses to SJC for just a year;
    (e) there appear to be moves towards a year in which students of SJC return to their dioceses for some internship ministry.

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      Is this (sort of) information available elsewhere than in a comment on a blog post reflecting on turmoil at an Anglican seminary half a planet away? 😉 I certainly find this information from you… informative. What I hear is that there is a lot of (d) ie. possibly more ‘exceptions’ than ‘all students’? [Wellington Diocese? Tikanga Maori?] I’m not sure what to make of your (e)? Are they away a year & then return to St John’s to complete a degree – or what do you mean?


    2. Does SJC grant it’s own degrees? Is it accredited to grant degrees?

      If a student has an undergraduate degree are they considered an graduate level student? If they don’t have a degree are they considered an undergraduate level student? Are these students mixed together in the same courses?

      What good is one year of seminary? Do the one year students take whatever courses happen to be offered that year that they are resident or is there a specific set of required courses that are offered every year in case there are one year students in residence?

        1. I am an Anglican solitary. However, one cast adrift because the bishop with whom I made my vows later stole a million or so dollars from our diocese and left. The bishop who replaced him wanted nothing to do with anything with which his predecessor was involved. So I say my Morning & Evening Prayers, live my vows and life goes on.

        2. Sure. However, I keep busy running a family business in Mexico with an older sister and a cousin. This is complicated due to moving to the US for safety concerns. So we telecomute our business from the US with associates located in Mexico.

      1. Hi David
        SJC grants a Diploma in Anglican Studies (endorsed via our “NZ Qualifications Authority” accreditation scheme).
        The B. Theol. students may study for is accredited through the University of Otago.
        Graduate and undergraduate students are mixed together in the Anglican Studies programme and when taking Otago B. Theol. courses.
        Dioceses sending students to SJC for one year most likely are sending students who already have a B. Theol. (or equivalent).

        1. It would be interesting, Peter, to get some stats on your suggestion that “Dioceses sending students to SJC for one year most likely are sending students who already have a B. Theol. (or equivalent)”. And I would underscore again that the vast majority of those being ordained are spending no time at SJC whatsoever. Blessings.

        2. Is the B. Theol. a first or a second bachelors degree?

          In the US and Canada the professional degree required for ordination by most mainline denominations, who require one, is the Master of Divinity. This is normally a 3 year degree, but may also require a term or two of internship (between the 2nd and 3rd year) in a congregation/parish for boots-on-the-ground, real world pastoral experience. The prerequisite for the M. Div. is a standard 4 year bachelors degree. However, about 50 years ago this was a Bachelor of Divinity degree, but was a second bachelors degree, with the same prerequisite of a standard 4 year bachelors degree.

          1. Hi David
            The B.Theol. Is a first degree which is also taken by many graduates, the B.D. (I am pretty sure) now out of existence in NZ.

            No local institution I am aware of offers an MDiv. All Master’s degrees in theology here presuppose a prior Bachelor degree in theology (or equivalent, as judged but the institution admitting a student to the master’s programme.

        3. I have to get used to using scheme in a positive light. In the US, I’m not sure about Canada, when you speak of schemes, you are 99% of the time speaking of something shady going on! Like a ponzi financial scheme or the Nigerian email schemes, both to defraud folks of their money

  4. Hi Bosco
    I am reflecting a fairly recent conversation with one of the leaders of the College.
    Communication with the church is also on the agenda.
    The (e) is the one that perhaps is more proposal than substantive policy.

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      Ah… communication in our church… Is it ironic that people knew more what was happening at St John’s before blogs, facebook pages, and websites, when there was a once-a-month, black-and-white newspaper? It would have a half page on each ordinand, complete with photos, background, interests, etc. Now ask clergy or laypeople in our diocese who are currently training for priesthood, or would they recognise them, or where they are training, or when they expect to see them as curates,… just for prayer for them… Maybe our church was most at home in the 19th century…


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