On April 26 and 27, faculty, staff, board members, alumni and friends of Bexley Hall and Seabury Western seminaries will gather at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis to inaugurate the new Bexley Hall Seabury Western Seminary Federation. We will be doing so at a time when seminary education in the Episcopal Church, as in all the mainstream denominations, is under tremendous stress.
The burden of student debt and an uncertain job outlook, the growing need for bi-vocational clergy, a steadily diminishing allegiance to denominational identity: all these hurdles have forced us radically to re-examine our mission and our future. The biggest hurdle for our seminaries is in fact to recognize how dramatically our circumstances have changed, and to respond to these changes creatively rather than to react in panic, or what's worse, in denial. What gives me joy in my new work as president of Bexley Hall and Seabury Western is the willingness of those who will gather with me in Indianapolis to re-imagine these two old (and in many ways too old-fashioned) institutions, and to take the risk of reinvention.
Our theme for these events, generously underwritten by The Henry Luce Foundation, is Restoring the Biblical Imagination. Given what I just said about the sketchy future of our seminaries, we might have spent this time together focusing on our schools as institutions. But too great an institutional focus—both in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere—tends to distract us from our more important task, which is to strengthen Christian faith in a vibrantly pluralist religious culture.
In a conversation with Eboo Patel, which he quotes in his new book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2012), Kenda Dean of Princeton Seminary put the matter succinctly:
The church has simply not taught our future leaders a way to articulate Christian identity in a religiously diverse world. We need a language that maintains our own distinctiveness and truth claims while respecting the goodness in others and, above all, affirming the holiness of relationships. The most prevalent Christian language in the public square is the language of domination. Because that language is so ugly and destructive, we race away from it, but we run so far we find ourselves in a land devoid of Christian symbolism entirely.
A major aim of these inaugural events is to restore the richness of Christian symbols—especially the rich language of Scripture—in a way that encourages honest religious conversation rather than stopping it cold. Our new seminary federation is in a unique position to reboot theological education in a way that can more readily respond to the probing questions and the thirst for spiritual connection that characterize a steadily increasing number of people who self-describe as spiritual but not religious, including people who profess no denominational affiliation as well as—truth be told—people who occupy our own pews Sunday after Sunday. Only by restoring our sense of generosity and beauty in our own scriptural traditions can we participate with integrity in the vibrant pluralism that more and more defines the American religious experience.