Friday, October 06, 2006

Seminaries in a Post-Christian Landscape

I have spent the last few days in England, and have been hanging around one of the theological colleges of the Church of England. It has been good to interact with the students and faculty, I have enjoyed the liveliness of the worship in the chapel, and the sense of mission that so many of the people have here.

Britain is far from an easy setting in which to do ministry, so it is encouraging to see so many gifted men and women who are willing to offer their all in the service of Christ, who gave his all for them. What has struck me about this place is a determined integration of right believing with right practice, and of scholarship that is rooted in a Kingdom-driven approach to ministry.

I was chatting the other morning with the principal, somehow we got onto the subject of monastic models and I found myself talking about Thomas Cahill's marvelous book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, that made such a splash in the USA a few years back. The thesis of the book, if you remember, is that when the Roman Empire collapsed Ireland became the refuge for Christian learning, many of the treasures of the ancient world finding their way into the various monasteries that existed there.

After a century or so, as the worst of the "dark ages" began to ameliorate themselves, it was monks who spread out from the Emerald Isle and took back to Europe with them both learning and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of the great monastic foundations that became beacons of hope and centers of learning throughout the northern part of Europe can trace their origins either directly or indirectly to Irish missionary monks.

How The Irish Saved Civilization is not a book that made it in the UK as it did in the USA (Surprise, surprise), but as I outlined its theme the principal's face lit up and he said something like, "Wow, the theological college model we have pursued for so long is one that is broadly Benedictine, but a Celtic model makes a great deal more sense for this day and age, with the seminary being the base from which mission is undertaken as people go out from there into the hostile culture around them."

I thoroughly agree with him. I believe that in some ways we are entering a different kind of "dark age," and that in the economy of God there is a need for places that will stand firm, remain faithful, preserve the deposit of the faith, and then communicate by word and deed the message of salvation to those around them. Could it be, I wonder, that the seminaries could be the Celtic monasteries of this age?

Yet it is obvious that not all our seminaries are doing the job in the way that they should, whether you measure them against a Celtic or a Benedictine model. The majority of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church are a very mixed bag, many having either modified or seemingly turned their backs on the undergirding essence of the deposit of the faith. The question is whether they are able to be these beacons of hope that are required. Given the performance of the leadership of ECUSA in the last few years I have to suggest that most of them are the reverse.

That reminded me of an illustration used many years ago by Richard Lovelace, a Presbyterian, and then Professor of Church History at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In one of his books, where he was talking about spiritual renewal, he likened a seminary to a garden sprinkler. As the sprinkler swivels around and around the water that gets sprayed over lawn or garden brings rich greenery and colorful life. However, it only takes a few drops of acid to get into the mix and an entirely different result is the outcome.

Lovelace commented that while some seminaries have a spiritual dynamic that is like water being sprayed out from the sprinkler, enriching the lives of the churches around them, there are some seminaries who produce acidic water that will ultimately destroy all those who, as it were, nestle in their shade.

As I look at the woes of the church to which I belong I cannot but confess that the seminaries have played a huge part in our demise. Acid rather than the bracing fresh water of the Gospel has been their product. So, if we are moving into a dark age, then whatever strategies we puruse, it behooves us to do something significant about seminaries so that they might be centers from which mission, ministry, and "civilization" go forth.


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