When I first began teaching in seminary a decade ago, I sometimes said to a student who complained of the workload: “Welcome to graduate school.” I myself was only recently out of graduate school. In my mind, the work expected for those pursuing a master’s degree was all about learning academic disciplines, synthesizing knowledge, and moving to even deeper understanding, all in service of the life of the mind. I knew I was for the most part training people for ordained ministry and I was very happy to do that. But my orientation was distinctly towards the type of learning found within the academy.
But over the years, my mind has changed. I was reminded of this while reading an essay by Martyn Percy on clergy formation in Anglicanism. Martyn Percy was principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon when I was on sabbatical there and is now dean of Christ Church in Oxford. He is a friend and a mentor.
In reading his essay he made the argument that “a person who is perhaps not a good theologian or a fine preacher may, nonetheless, be an excellent priest.” What Martyn Percy was getting at is that in many professions, like medicine or law, the emphasis is on fully mastering skills and gaining knowledge. A doctor or lawyer deficient in either of those areas would not be a very good one at all. Yet a priest who is not a very good theologian or a middling preacher may still be a fine priest.
Such a situation is possible because of the importance of formation in the education of clergy. By formation, Martyn Percy has in mind “the partial setting aside of the skills and knowledge an individual candidate may have; and then the institution, together with the sponsoring or receiving bishop, engaging in the spiritual process of discernment of the vocation of the person who is offering for ministry.”
In a counter-intuitive way, the formation that happens within community is as (or even more) important than the knowledge and skills that are formally taught. In other words, what happens at seminary is the process by which the ethos of the community seeks to “infuse individuals with formational values.” But this is never a process that ought to be about the culture of the seminary itself but how the seminary has responded to the question “What kind of ministry does the church require?” The church might not need every priest to be a strong theologian or an excellent preacher, though competency here of some sort would be expected. What the church does need are priests who excel at being priests in their context.
Martyn Percy’s argument echoes much of my current thought about what kind of school a seminary is.
I think it is time to put the classification of seminary as graduate school to bed. Seminary is not graduate school because the term graduate school implies an institution that is shaped by the norms and expectations of the academy. But if we are shaping clergy, then we ought to be shaped by the norms and expectations of the church. Here I note the irony that the seminaries who are best weathering the storms besetting theological education are those housed at universities, and so most susceptible to being cast as graduate school. But I write from the view of an independently endowed denominational seminary.
But if seminary is not graduate school, what is it?
Let us look at the very word seminary to know what it is. It comes from the Latin seminarium meaning “seed bed.” Seminary is not graduate school. It is a garden, a plot land, a place where each student ought to be tended to and cultivated so that they might bear the fruit they are called to by God through the discernment of the community of believers, the church.
Seminary is a school, but much more in the spirit of the Rule of Benedict it is a school of service to God. Seminary is the place of vocation, discernment and learning. It is the place where by instruction one does gain the knowledge and skills needed to be a priest. But the learning is done in the spirit of cultivation and discernment. The question ought not to be, “how excellent a student is this person?” but “how does this person need to be cultivated to become the priest God has called them to be?” The faculty then move from being dispensers of information and assessors of skills (though that is retained as a feature) to being cultivators of vocation.
So the next time a student comes to me about the stresses of seminary, I will welcome them to the garden of their formation.
(Martyn Percy, “Context, Character, and Challenges: The Shaping of Ordination Training” in Mark D. Chapman, et al., The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, 490-503.)