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Bankruptcy of Liberalism as Episcopal Seminaries Face Closure

Bankruptcy of Liberalism as Episcopal Seminaries Face Closure

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

Three Episcopal Seminaries, bastions of liberalism, face closure with struggling costs, second career middle-aged priests on fixed incomes, bad theology and programs that reflect the current spiritual zeitgeist of The Episcopal Church.

The first seminary to nose dive was Bexley Hall Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, which announced they would close their satellite campus in Rochester, N.Y., because of declining enrollment and accreditation concerns.

The seminary describes itself as "a seminary in the liberal Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism." That, in itself, should tell you why it failed. There is no future for that brand of Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church is almost uniformly liberal and revisionist with a small handful of legitimate Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, but almost nothing is left of liberal Anglo-Catholicism or, as it is now known, Affirming Catholicism held up by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

More recently, officials at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., announced plans to eliminate the residential Master of Divinity program and to discontinue faculty contracts in 2009. Their mission statement "to develop empowered and empowering leaders for Christ's Church and God's mission in the world with a particular focus on congregational vitality" has clearly failed to make an impact. The Trustees of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary declared that the Episcopal Seminary "is in (a state of) financial crisis that threatens survival of the institution" and gave notice to all faculty members that their employment would end June 30, 2009.

The school has also eliminated nine staff positions. The final date of employment for most of these positions was this week - a week after graduation and the school's 150th anniversary celebrations. Money, or the lack of it, was blamed, but if you have no ringing endorsement of what it is that "empowers leaders" in proclaiming the Good News, then failure is inevitable. Ironically, not more than 15 miles up the road at Deerfield IL, is Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for Ministry, a thriving interdenominational Evangelical seminary. 40 miles west is Wheaton College, a leading Evangelical Liberal Arts College where 50% of its student body claim Anglicanism as their churchmanship!

In April, the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Mass, said it was selling seven buildings to nearby Lesley University for $33.5 million as a part of a partnership agreement to stabilize the seminary's finances.

EDS President and Dean, Steven Charleston told Episcopal News Service that it would help to anchor EDS into a foundation that will secure the financial future of the school as well as opening EDS up to continue its innovative work in theological education for the church.

It is those two words "innovative work" that marks it out for death. The seminary was once described by Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, in his book "Requiem" (1995), "as an institution that has now become self-designated as an openly homosexual-welcoming seminary. It will not evoke the response of the laity and they will be repulsed by moral and spiritual consequences of that seminary. Even with McGovernized representation, the old line church constituency is smarter than to allow its institutions to be permanently commandeered by an orientation and ideology so alien as proto-Marxian lesbianism and all-orifice any-gender promiscuity."

Charleston himself once opined that Jesus' command to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations" does not give Christians the authority to tell other people how to believe and how to pray, how to dress and how to speak, how to act and how to think. "That is authority Jesus never gave to us, because he knew that we could not handle it," he says. With theology like that, it is no wonder there is no Great Commission proclaimed and the seminary is dying. It should come as no surprise that overall enrollment is down by 25%! Charleston says he has no job after June 1.

The question is how long will it be before six of the remaining eight liberal Episcopal seminaries will announce cut backs and closures?

Two Episcopal seminaries, both orthodox in faith and morals, are not in decline and are in fact flourishing.

Nashotah House in Wisconsin, is thriving, so is Trinity School for Ministry based in Ambridge, PA.

Nashotah House is Anglo-Catholic in orientation and has doubled its enrollment to 108. It also has a new Doctor of Ministry program. Durham Bishop N. T. Wright says of the institution, "I have a sense that maybe Nashotah House, like the Irish in the Dark Ages, is called to hang onto certain things which other bits of the tradition have thrown away against the time when the rest of the church realizes it needs them again."

Trinity School for Ministry is also on the rise. Although its graduate ordinands are scorned, despised and rejected by liberal Episcopal dioceses, it is training many of the sons of Global South Anglican bishops and archbishops. TESM has seen its residential Master of Divinity program grow by more than 30 percent since the late 1990s, and today has about 40 students per class. It recently received a $1 million donation for students coming from the Global South (Nigeria and the Middle East) who want a thorough Evangelical Anglican education not easily available elsewhere.

Interesting too, is the fact that interdenominational evangelical Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, offers a Master of Divinity degree in Anglican/Episcopal studies with a marked historical and biblical bent that is rapidly growing even as EDS slowly withers and dies. You can read more about their program here: www.gordonconwell.edu:7777/hamilton/registration/pdf/handbook/degrees.pdf - Similar pages

Regent College, Vancouver, on the campus of the University of British Columbia also has an Anglican Studies Center offering a program in world Anglicanism. It partners with Wycliffe Hall, a permanent private hall of Oxford University to offer a unique initiative in theological education. These schools offer programs, which enable prospective ordinands the opportunity to experience Anglicanism in two different cultural contexts: Vancouver and Oxford. It is ironic that this program is being offered in the Anglican heart of darkness that is the revisionist Diocese of New Westminster and its Bishop Michael Ingham.

If anything has been learned from the consecration of openly homoerotic Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, it is that liberal seminaries are slowly declining while orthodox seminaries thrive, a fact overlooked by those who preach the loudest for an inclusive and diverse church.

The Episcopal method of training clergy "is a very expensive way to do theological education," said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Association of Theological Schools. "There is significant financial stress in the Episcopal seminary system," he told the Religious News Service, but that doesn't explain the loss of interest in the Episcopal Church, its aging congregations and increasingly aging seminarians. Those who leave seminary with debt face average annual student loan payments of more than $12,000 -- with an average starting salary of just $45,500, reports RNS. If vocation, calling and ministry are reduced to money, it is no wonder that these institutions are dying. Jesus sent his disciples out with little more than the clothes on their backs. Retiring Episcopal priests and bishops can expect to receive pensions that rival and exceed most anything the secular world has to offer.

Trinity's dean of students, Tina Lockett told RNS that "But by and large, people are picking their seminary based on the quality of the academics, the theology of the faculty and the theological position of the seminary. They'll work out the money as a secondary issue."

Money or the lack of it doesn't explain it all away. The problem lies in the message, or lack of same, being promulgated in the seminaries. Evangelical seminaries are thriving. TESM is but one example. Centrist and liberal seminaries, with no clearly defined message but pluralism and accommodationist to the culture, are withering and dying. Who wants to hear, absorb and regurgitate the thoughts of EDS feminist-lesbo-womanist "theologian" Carter Heyward? Who honestly thinks it will fill churches. Better to build a columbarium and they will come. "Central to EDS' educational programs and community life is our emphasis on antiracist and multicultural learning," says Heyward.

If that is the case and it is not the proclamation of the Good News, then a local university or college could just as easily provide such learning, and probably much better. Ironically, if racism is a problem in TEC, it has come more from the liberal side of the pews than the orthodox. The attitude and utterances of liberal Episcopal bishops towards African bishops over the years is decidedly racist. One recalls the statement of inhibited Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison who likened the growth of the church in Africa to Hitler's Nazi Party!

After all, if a priest can't tell the difference between The Great Commission and Millennium Development Goals, then they shouldn't be leading an Episcopal parish; better to join the UN or the Kiwanis Club or any of the multitudinous agencies that press good works.

As go the seminaries, so go the churches. Aging and withering congregations can no longer support newly minted liberal Via Media type priests. That day is over. The Episcopal Church is losing a thousand or more persons a week. Those numbers will only increase in the coming months. The children of those fleeing Episcopalians will never darken the doors of TEC's liberal seminaries. That day, too, is done.


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