Bishop John Shelby Spong: “The Pacific School of Religion and Theological Education for Tomorrow’s Christianity”

August 21, 2012
Bishop John Shelby Spong

I spent a week recently teaching in the summer session of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. It was a demanding schedule of four hours a day from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on each of the five days of that week. This opportunity forced me to think about the state of theological education in the United States and to wonder about its adequacy to meet the crises the Christian Church faces in the 21st century. In this column I share those thoughts.

The Pacific School of Religion illustrates well the past and the future state of training of church leaders. This seminary is part of the consortium of theological schools that surround the University of California in Berkeley. Each of these schools began its life as a west coast seminary serving its particular denomination. Each one, therefore, built its own chapel, dormitory, refectory and library. The unconscious, and therefore largely unspoken, idea was to re-create the English, Scottish, German and European model in which theological education is part of a university setting and presumably, in dialogue with the expansion of knowledge that is the essence of university life. It was essentially a Protestant model that sees ministry in terms of engagement with the world, not a monastic process of withdrawal from the world.

Over the half century between the end of World War II and the end of the second millennium, Protestant Christianity went through many changes. Much of its self-understanding, while not admitted, had been tribal in nature. Episcopalians tended to be the worshiping descendants of English immigrants, Presbyterians of Scottish immigrants and Lutherans of German and Scandinavian immigrants. Roman Catholics also are primarily descendants of the nations of Southern Europe and Ireland. As is the case with all sweeping generalizations, this conclusion has many exceptions to the rule, but it is, nonetheless, broadly accurate. When the generations went by and intermarriage occurred people began to forget their country of origin and its special worship patterns and Christianity in America became homogenized and at the same time began to splinter into many patterns, sometimes quite congregational and individualistic as new identity was sought. Methodism became very much the Anglican Church Americanized and was the primary religion of the frontier as it moved westward. The United Church of Christ claimed its Zwinglian roots and took on a more radical flavor. Baptist and Pentecostal groups proliferated and began to exhibit an anti-intellectual bias. The Unitarians on the other hand took up the intellectual challenge, feeling stifled by the creeds and doctrines of the traditional churches.

Inevitably, as the years rolled by denominational (i.e. tribal) loyalty began to fade. Each Christian tradition had within it those who wanted to walk the frontiers of new understanding and those who wanted to defend the “unchanging past” with increasing determination. This meant that cross-denominational alliances began to form that linked the progressives together on one end and the traditionalists on the other.

Among the denominational seminaries, the realization also began to dawn that biblical and theological scholarship was not the possession of a single tradition. There is no such thing as conservative or liberal scholarship; there is only competent or incompetent scholarship. There was, therefore, no real need to have separate libraries at each theological school in a specific geographical area or to replicate professors in the same academic disciplines in separate schools. The case was still made that specific things like liturgy, chapel worship, clergy ordination formation, canon law and denominational history might need to be handled individually by the separate schools, but other disciplines were common to them all. These were the forces that pushed denominational schools toward a consortium. The schools around the University of California in Berkeley were ideally suited by dint of their location to lead this change.

The first step was to combine all of the denominational schools’ libraries into a single facility able to serve all the students, thus maximizing the books that were available and the services that a large library could offer. The next step was to allow the enrollment of all students in any class offered by any part of the consortium, thus maximizing the courses that would be available and stopping senseless replication of teaching resources. Each school kept its own requirements for the awarding of degrees, but full credit would be accorded for classes taken at any member school of the consortium. The denominational schools thus became participants in an entity called “The Graduate Theological Union,” where doctorates were offered and a summer school, open to all of each school’s graduates, was available. So more and more of the students at each theological center studied and formed friendships among and with those who would be clergy in all traditions. Denominational concerns began a slow, but inevitable retreat.

In time, the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, for a variety of reason, some more noble than others, gave up its responsibility for the summer school, but one of its constituent members, namely the Pacific School of Religion, agreed to pick it up and to continue to run a fully accredited program, but on an ecumenical basis. I have been on the faculty of this summer school under the aegis of both the Graduate Theological Union and the Pacific School of Religion on six different occasions. Each of these opportunities has been unique and worthwhile. My classes have ranged from about fifty students to over a hundred. Representing a wide sweep of traditions, between half and two-thirds of these students were ordained graduates of a particular theological seminary, who were returning in the summer for “continuing education.” Others in the class were those still in pursuit of their divinity degrees and theologically interested lay people. My students this summer included ordained clergy who were Congregationalists (UCC), Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Quakers, Unitarians, Baptists and Roman Catholics. Two rabbis also enrolled enriching us all.

An unexpected serendipity of the development of theological consortiums has been that the member schools have begun to define themselves more sharply. In my own theological training, my seminary and most of the Episcopal centers for preparing clergy defined their vocation as “generalists,” preparing men and women for ministry in the broader definitions of Episcopal Church life. One seminary might emphasize pastoral ministry, another liturgics, another intellectual concerns and another social action ministry, but generally Episcopal seminary graduates could serve almost all of our churches. As “normal” church life began to fade, however, in both importance and in its appeal to the increasingly secular population, this “general” preparation began to have a limited value and the cry for bolder action was heard, but all too often ignored as a threat to denominational support. When a fire destroyed the chapel at one seminary, the immediate emphasis was to build a bigger and better chapel to continue the same kind of liturgical activity that people are today abandoning in droves. Strange mottos like “progressive orthodoxy” were adopted to suggest that no radical new thrust in clergy preparation was required.

The Pacific School of Theology, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the Methodists and the Disciples of Christ traditions, however, decided that rising indifference to traditional religious activity represented a new opportunity. Their vocation, they declared in both word and deed, was to engage the world in which they found themselves living. Scholarship, therefore, would not be compromised to protect the insecurities of the faithful. Biblical studies would be encouraged to come out of the academy and be introduced to the people in the pews. If the operative church definition of God could not stand against the onslaught of scientific knowledge they would let that old definition die rather than trying to respirate it artificially. They would no longer be interested in defending the creedal formulas of the 4th century that no educated person in our age can accept. They would no longer be interested in coddling those students who still wanted to diminish women, people of color or gay and lesbian people. This school thus began to define itself publicly, to announce to would-be students exactly who they were and what their students should expect. If this was not the kind of theological education that applying students wanted then they should look elsewhere. People listened and took notice. The Pacific School of Religion still trains pastors, but pastors who want to live in, speak to and engage the religious concerns of the future, not the religious concerns of the past. So at PSR experiments with new forms of ministry appeared and things tied to an older world disappeared.

Will it work? Will people gravitate toward this attempt to discover a future for Christianity? Only time will tell, but one sign of success is already apparent. The Methodist Theological School at Drew University in New Jersey went in search of a new dean a year ago. They found him on the faculty of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. His name is Jeffrey Kuan, a professor of Old Testament. If the Drew Theological School can build a bold training center for clergy on the east coast to match the excitement that the Pacific School of Religion has created on the west coast, perhaps a new kind of clergy will emerge – those committed to Christian ministry, but not afraid of knowledge; those willing to rethink traditional symbols; those even willing to offend the ones who have not progressed beyond their 4th grade Sunday School understanding of God for the sake of the future. If that occurs, something new in theological education and clergy training will begin to appear. PSR gives me hope. So does Drew Theological School. I salute them both with great expectations.

~ John Shelby Spong

Reprinted by Permision of ProgressiveChristianity.Org