Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thoughts on attending a Seminary Graduation

May 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended the graduation and commencement ceremonies of St. Luke’s Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. We had a small representation form All Saints’ in support of Emmanuel Bwatta, our friend who is the principal of the Bible College of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in Kusulu. He received a Master of Arts degree and was awarded the prize for excellence in the study of Hebrew. I’m looking forward to reading his thesis on “Prophets and the Social-Political Welfare of Israel: Today’s Challenge to the Churches of Tanzania.”

Fourteen people received the Master of Divinity Degree, thirteen of whom are Episcopalians and (presumably) headed toward ordination in the eleven dioceses represented. The preacher was Barbara Crafton (who has led our women’s and all parish retreats in recent years, and who herself received an honorary doctorate). She mentioned the phenomenon of ‘disappearing curacies’ and I wondered how many of these graduates were going to have positions and places in which to serve in the coming months.

I wonder what the future holds for the provision of ministry as clergy in particular and church staffs in general become ever more expensive. The General Convention does a good thing requiring some level of health and pension benefits for all staff and sets the bar at people who work twenty hours per week. That will increase our costs in a year or two by an amount that is roughly the cost of the position we are giving up by not hiring a person dedicated to Christian Social Ministries in the near term. Even as we lose positions in this climate, so those positions become ever more expensive to fill. Something has to change and I’m not sure what that will be. What I know is this: the ministry of the gospel is not dependent on handsomely paid positions in the institutions of the church. I also know that those positions will be much easer to fund if the people who are graduating from seminary have fire in the belly and a passion for proclaiming good news rather than solely having really well thought out opinions on the use of incense in worship. I am not intending to take a swipe at theological education which I value, but am suggesting that the education needs to be focused more on the gospel and less on the institutional forms that it takes. Could it be that this is why denominational seminaries of every stripe are struggling?

As to the ceremony itself, it was a joy to see people happy and celebrating surrounded by friends and family who have supported the journey. It was fun to connect with old friends from various parts of the church. One of my pet peeves is any attempt to use the ‘large occasion’ to introduce new music or liturgical innovation to a congregation who are not there for that. We had a couple of spectacularly unfortunate examples. Shouldn’t our worship on such an occasion be as inclusive and celebratory as possible? Also, while I was proud of our bishop who is serving as Chancellor of the University and who clearly knew what he was doing, if we are going to use schools Latin in the awarding of degrees after the custom of the ancient Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, then some of the other speakers could use some guidance in pronouncing the Latin. It really shouldn’t sound like we imagine a modern Italian might do it! The school did a good job of providing translations, but I wonder if it had much to do with the mountains of Tennessee in the first place.

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