Lesson 2: Ecumenical Seminaries

Catholic SeminarySeveral decades ago some writers observed progressives in all denominations are more comfortable with progressives in all other denominations than they are with conservatives in their own. Chances are this situation foreshadows what lies ahead for the American Church.

It also captures the sense of the comment Derek made last week. Although our church bodies continue to split, individual Christians are just happy to find each other in their professional and academic environments. Their joy comes from discovering others sharing the Christian lifestyle with integrity in spite of their organizational differences.

I think this is what is going to happen as seminary education changes. For simple financial reasons, most of our pastors will probably be trained in ecumenical seminaries in a hundred years. Right now, Lutherans cannot or are not willing to finance their seminaries. Because of this, we now have large physical campuses and faculties but very few candidates for the ministry.

The first response, which is happening to some extent already, is to consolidate seminaries and faculties. The next step is to train our leaders in ecumenical seminaries.

I can speak from experience about what will happen. When I attended an ecumenical seminary, I first found my identity by reading more Luther than my friends in Lutheran seminaries. But then I found my friends from other denominations were not as different as I had been told. When I studied, worshiped, and socialized with them for three years, I found we had much to teach each another. In fact, the experience caused me to question why our church bodies remained separated when working together would make a far better witness to our rapidly secularized society. I expect others will experience the same development at ecumenical seminaries and that this will lead to widespread questioning of our present church bodies.

Lutherans and other American Christians have heard this story for some time. In the mid-19th century, Samuel Simon Schmucker, the founder of Gettysburg College and Seminary, called for American denominations to join together for social work and missions and to wait for theological agreement to develop later. In the mid-20th century, Eugene Carson Bake essentially made the same proposal. This did lead to the forming of the UCC church, but others did follow suit. Perhaps by the mid-21st century, the suggestion will be finally implemented.

If this seems farfetched and at best a long way off, note that the present ELCA bishop of the Metro DC Synod and the Presiding Bishop of that Church were both trained at ecumenical seminaries.

Of course, this leads to some questions. Most of our readers yearn for the Holy Spirit. We believe we are called to discern and follow the lead of that Spirit in all we do and constantly pray that our churches would make their decisions based on this discernment. Now, we have to ask whether being forced by financial necessity to do something could be understood as following the Spirit. At the least, our leaders should acknowledge what is happening and begin to work creatively on a witness attractive for our modern society.

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  1. Rita says:

    I have to admit that I can’t see Catholic seminarians joining various Protestant seminarians in my lifetime, but I couldn’t help thinking of how Rustum Roy said years ago that progressive Catholics had more in common with progressive Protestants than conservative Catholics. I can see this in the coalitions between conservative Catholics and right-wing Evangelicals or Fundamentalists on social issues. And, conversely, the civil rights movement, occurring around the same time as Vatican II, merged progressive Christians of every stripe.

    I also thought of how within religious communities of women when Vatican II began, we, who had always guarded our postulants and novices from “outside influences” to ensure that the charism of the specific community would be instilled, ventured to allow young women to mingle socially and to take theology classes together, allowing members to experience how various novitiates were run, what practices were considered unique and what were generally universal, etc. It was an enriching experience for communities as well, and led to decades of being allowed to live and work with members of communities that would never have crossed paths years before. The LCWR today is a good example of how Sisters saw themselves as members of a larger “family” than their own religious communities.

    I also thought that it was akin to modern marriages where young people don’t think twice about marrying “outside the tribe.” They choose members of other religious denominations, cultures, and even races without thinking that this phenomenon would have been either unheard of or against the law within their parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes.

    My own religious community’s charism/motto is “That All May Be One,” and it’s taken me a quarter century to grasp what that Scriptural prayer might mean. We are ecumenical, gathering in both Protestant and Catholic members. We celebrate Eucharists together, often led by ordained women members. Not being “under Rome” has given us both a freedom and a challenge. Bishops don’t give us our identify, but we remain true to the basic concepts of a life promising a commitment to the Gospel and to one another that is unique in Catholic or Protestant groups of Sisters.

    Thanks for “stretching” our vision beyond what is to what might be. The divisions within our respective denominations are real, but they are less rooted in general acceptance than the hierarchy of the various Churches would have us believe. The openness of American society has to have an effect on religious entities. I think it’s what fuels the backlash of the Religious Right in all our denominations. They see the dogmatic verities in a different way from their members at large.–and they don’t know what to do about it except to hunker down on social issues with little theological underpinning.

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