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The Atlantic Monthly | December 1990
arely is even a trace of it apparent when the men and women who administer and teach in America's seminaries and schools of theological training speak to prospective students or incoming classes. Then their faces are bright, their words brim with optimism and hope. When they are asked in the public forum to assess what impact their seminarians will have on our country, it is as if a mighty spiritual armada were about to be launched: what opportunity for efficacious conquest!
The Hands That Would Shape Our Souls
by Paul Wilkes
But when they speak quietly and privately, the doubt shows on their faces and resonates in their voices. It is not only because they see a moral vacuum and numbing secularism in American society; it is also because they feel shame. They have squandered a legacy, and in their hearts they nurse the fear that perhaps it has been lost forever. Each of them knows well that no group, denomination, or faith is exempt.
Mainline Protestantism, once the warp and most of the woof of the American moral fabric, and a powerful voice in national politics, continues to lose both members and influence.
The Catholic Church, the largest American church by far, and once characterized by abundant numbers of obedient congregants hamstrung by meager education and limited access to the centers of power, now finds that an ever growing proportion of its members are well schooled and well placed—but consider the Church peripheral to their lives. They no longer look upon their priest, if indeed the current shortage allows them one, as a role model and spiritual leader.
Judaism, just two or three generations away from its rich European roots, has largely mutated into a secular culture, and is no longer the binding force of Abraham and Jacob.
The American black church, that healing balm, that unifying power, which functioned as both church and—in some senses—state during and after slavery, and then spawned the civil-rights movement: today it looks out helplessly upon a devastated black community, beset by teenage pregnancies and single-parent families, drugs, poverty, and hopelessness.
The evangelical churches, which have grown in size and influence over the past three decades, have seen their preachers-turned-politicians mocked, and have been forced to watch as their media ministers have nailed themselves to crosses of their own making, of greed and carnality. The Southern Baptists and other evangelical churches, a touchstone for many Americans, are suffering a special crisis of faith, racked by internal strife over what the Bible does or does not say.
What makes the present crisis faced by American religious denominations so perplexing is that within living memory circumstances were radically different. Through the 1950s, at least, the role of religion in America was pervasive and its importance not much questioned. Many of the country's ablest citizens enrolled in seminaries to prepare for a life of service to their congregations. The word coming from the pulpit was considered not only useful but authoritative. For a variety of reasons this situation no longer obtains. "You know the parable of the talents and how those talents were used wisely and unwisely?" Richard Mouw, the provost of Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, asked in a confessional tone as we lingered over a third cup of coffee at a sidewalk restaurant one morning. "We in seminaries are in that story, and to be honest, we have not been good stewards."
The seminaries are in that story, of course, because through their doors passes each new generation of clergy—the people who have, up to now, provided leadership for their denominations in good times and bad. There are well over two hundred Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and interdenominational seminaries in the United States today. The total enrollment at those schools affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools, which includes schools representing some forty major and minor denominations, is about 56,000. Women make up more than a third of the enrollment. The seminaries range from the hidebound to the touchy-feely, from fundamentalist, where students must attest that every word of Scripture is inviolate, to thoroughly open, where atheists can attend, and where no creed, dogma, or text is sacred. They train men and women to perform the various functions that each faith's expression demands—whether these are heavily liturgical or predominantly scriptural—as well as to be spiritual guides and secular counselors. The orientations of America's seminaries may vary enormously, but today their common mandate is clear: to provide the people who will pick up the pieces left by the past three decades.
Those charged with educating and forming today's seminarians know well the size of the task they face. And they find themselves confronted with some disquieting questions as they look at the men and women who are currently studying for the ministry. Is there a critical mass of new leadership in training today? Will they become the religious leaders to whom a skeptical but—as poll after poll confirms—spiritually hungry populace is willing to listen? Does this generation of seminarians have the talent and the will to wield moral authority wisely and effectively? Or are today's seminarians an indicator species—endangered, fragile, sterile—signaling finally and decisively the end of religion in America as a personal and public force?
Several months ago I set out to visit some fifteen American seminaries and theological schools, representing many of the nation's largest denominations and a range of spiritual orientations. I spoke with scores of seminarians, faculty members, and heads of seminaries. What I came back with was a picture of institutions that are deeply troubled by contemporary issues; many, too, are beset by a flighty if implacable radicalism. And yet I found that some of these institutions still attract—and seem to be shaping—the kind of people who can lead fractious congregations.
Who Are They?
XCEPT AMONG THE MORE CONSERVATIVE AND evangelical groups, seminarians today are older than their counterparts of twenty years ago, and many of them are married, separated, or divorced. (Female seminarians are more likely than males to have experienced a failed marriage: in 1986 one female seminarian out of six was separated or divorced, as compared with one male seminarian out of fifty.) A large number of them have had significant experience in the world, and so consider the seminary to be the beginning of a second career. At the prestigious interdenominational Harvard University Divinity School, Dean Ronald Thiemann points to successful business people, bankers, and lawyers now undergoing theological training as evidence that people who turn to the divine realm have often achieved success in the secular realm first. But there is concern that at denominational seminaries and lesser-known interdenominational schools some students have turned to religious training after disappointment in the marketplace or to gain employment in a profession that they hope will bring them the status they have otherwise found elusive. And there is also fear that the denominational schools are increasingly acting like bureaucracies with a certain number of slots to fill—slots that they will fill regardless of the quality of applicants. Those who accredit Protestant seminaries, as well as those who administer and teach in them, reluctantly admit that the institutions are considerably less demanding of applicants than they were in the past. Princeton, one of the best divinity schools in the country, has 150 openings every year for incoming students; some went unfilled this year because of the lack of qualified and promising applicants. "We still get some very bright students in our seminaries," says F. Thomas Trotter, now the president of Alaska Pacific University, in Anchorage, and formerly the head of the United Methodist Church's Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which oversees that church's seminaries. "But we also have a fair number of less attractive candidates, people who will just punch a clock. The sad fact is that the middle has dropped out: the journeyman—and now journeywoman—pastor who could be counted on for thirty or forty years of good and faithful service." Smaller Protestant seminaries, pressed for money and needing to maintain a certain student-body size to remain solvent, have resorted to taking virtually anyone able to pay. In part for this reason such schools find themselves tailoring their curricula to fit what they think the students will agree to study—a technique not unknown to secular colleges—rather than what they think those students will need to be effective clergywomen and clergymen. Those Catholic diocesan seminaries that have survived occasionally find themselves ready to reject a candidate sent to them by a bishop, until that bishop makes it clear that if the seminary does not take all the men he sends them, he will find a place that does. The schools are well aware that their survival might be jeopardized if the bishop's action resulted in the loss of five or ten seminarians a year.
There is little doubt that the quality of seminarians has declined. Dean after dean admits that seminaries are getting precious few of those ranked in the top reaches of their undergraduate classes. In 1947 some ten percent of college graduates nominated to Phi Beta Kappa went into the ministry. A Phi Beta Kappa member today who evinced an interest in the ministry would be recruited by seminaries with unholy zeal. The ministry these days must compete for the best and the brightest not only with the ill-paid and too-often thankless helping professions, such as social work and counseling, but also with the high-profile and well-paid professions of law, business, and medicine. There is concern that some of those for whom the seminary marks the beginning of a second or third career may be burdened with cumbersome psychological baggage: finally they have found a profession in which they will get the respect they deserve; the church will protect them in a hostile and confusing world; somehow the tedium of the quotidian will evaporate now that a higher calling is being pursued. One researcher found that, notwithstanding the bankers and lawyers at Harvard, entrepreneu rial- type males were a distinct minority in the seminary population he studied: graduates might be able to tend established churches, but they were not self-starters. "The energy level is shockingly low," the researcher told me. One seminary in the South reported that seven to nine percent of those it admitted over a recent ten-year period had such elevated scores on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index—which helps to detect mental disorders such as paranoia and schizophrenia—that they warranted immediate counseling.
The academic and intellectual level in seminaries would be mediocre indeed were it not for the ever increasing numbers of women, who, as their denominations began to allow their ordination, started coming to the seminaries in significant numbers in the 1960s. In the Catholic schools of theology that allow women to take courses—primarily seminaries attached to universities or those that have been absorbed into consortia of various religious denominations—women students consistently score higher than men. One recent study showed that women aged twenty to twenty-four entering theological training in all denominations scored twenty points higher in the quantitative section of the Graduate Record Exam than men in the same age group. In contrast, women in professions other than the ministry score on the average eighty points lower than men on this portion of the GRE.
ister Katarina Schuth is in the strange position of knowing more about American Catholic seminaries than virtually anyone else in her church, and yet is barred, on account of her sex, not only from the priesthood but even from taking courses at a good number of the seminaries she studies. She is a fast-talking forty-nine-year-old woman with bright blue eyes and a clear complexion unenhanced by makeup. Schuth, a Franciscan with an advanced degree in theology and a Ph.D. in cultural geography, is a thoroughly modern nun and the director of planning at the Weston School of Theology, a Jesuit institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After visiting half of the fifty Catholic seminaries and schools of theology in the United States, surveying the rest, and talking to hundreds of teachers, administrators, and students, she wrote a book. Demonstrating a good nun's optimism, she called it Reason for the Hope. (The title comes from the first epistle of Peter: "Simply reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have.") The subtitle of the book is "The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates."
Some within the Church who are knowledgeable about the state of Catholic theological education and the quality and numbers of seminarians might have edited the title of Schuth's book slightly: Reason for Hope? Schuth found that many seminaries were managing to cope adequately with an array of contemporary challenges, but they also faced "intractable problems" that had yet to be resolved. "The less optimistic observations," she wrote, "come from the same groups of people who find reason for hope—from bishops and religious superiors who are discouraged by the small number of first-rate candidates applying for ordination, from administrators who are concerned about enrollment and finances, from faculty who fear loss of academic freedom and feel overburdened by the multiple expectations attached to their positions, and by students who are uncertain of their role and identity as ministers in an unpredictable future."
Schuth noted the existence of a division in the character of America's roughly fifty Catholic seminaries. One group consists of seminaries that are university-related or are participants in consortia of seminaries that have pooled their resources because of the small number of candidates in each. These institutions tend to admit lay and religious people of both sexes. They also tend to have faculties with higher-than-average levels of education, whose members routinely and regularly publish in the best scholarly journals and write books that are widely accepted in theological circles. Taken together, however, these institutions educate a relatively small fraction of the nation's Catholic seminarians.
By far the largest numbers of priests receive their training in a different type of school altogether, called "freestanding," of which there are about thirty. Half of these are affiliated with religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. The other half, with the lion's share of all seminary enrollments, are diocesan seminaries, which have no ties to other institutions and, proclaiming that they must not be deflected from their primary mission, frequently don't allow lay people or women to attend classes. Schuth goes on at length in her book about the purported advantages of seminaries that train exclusively men for the priesthood (students receive a specific education for the specific set of tasks required of ordained priests), but she also noted during an interview in her Cambridge office (as she notes in her book) that the diocesan schools have a large number of faculty members without doctorates, who rarely publish scholarly articles or books. One seminarian, at a diocesan school that is known to be quite weak, told Schuth, "We come here to learn how to say mass and not to ask too many questions. We are here to learn what the church teaches. Period." That attitude is not typical—but it is worrisome that it exists at all. The bleak reality is that too many seminarians are receiving some of the poorest education the Church can offer.
Schuth alludes to doubts about the wisdom of educating parish priests in as cloistered an atmosphere as that of some diocesan seminaries. "There is a concern," Schuth said, choosing her words carefully even as a quizzical smile let the listener's mind wander where it would, "that women, lay students, and lay faculty dilute and confuse the role of a seminary. This may be the case in certain persons' minds, but actually women and lay people are among the most promising students, and lay teachers are at least as well educated as most diocesan priests who teach. These nonclerical elements give breadth and reality to the classroom, the reality of what the world is like, what the parish is like. A healthy selection of classes at a good university can broaden a future priest. It doesn't necessarily enhance his training merely to isolate him."
Owing to the crushing shortage of manpower, if a man is bent on becoming a priest and is not too educationally unfit, psychologically aberrant, or flagrantly homosexual, he can usually find a diocese that will sponsor him and a seminary that will accept him. The Catholic Church, which could at one time choose those to study for the priesthood from among the best of its young men, saw the numbers of priests begin to decline after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), just as Catholicism was finally being accepted into the American mainstream. Priests, frustrated by the Church's continuing insistence on celibacy, and sensing the freedom and new life that the 1960s seemed to promise, were now able to obtain dispensations from their vows and still remain Catholics. Some simply took off their collars and went into the world without a sanction they no longer felt was necessary. Perhaps 10,000 American priests have left since Vatican II; the numbers of seminarians plummeted even more precipitously. Almost 40,000 young men were in training in 1968; this year the figure is just over 8,000. Much of that attrition occurred in the minor (high school) seminaries, whose enrollment dropped from almost 16,000 to a little over 2,000 students. On the theology level—the last four years of training before ordination—the decline was from almost 8,000 to fewer than 4,000.
Those brave souls who did enter Catholic seminaries became, inadvertently, the focus of a sort of social scientists' cottage industry and have been the most intensively studied group who have ever prepared for a religious vocation. Although Catholic seminarians today show themselves to be about as psychologically well balanced and mature as the men who entered seminaries before Vatican II, some crucial differences exist. First of all, they are older than their predecessors, by about six years; some studies comment that their maturity level should therefore be higher, not equal. Today's seminarians also lack the intellectual range of former seminarians. "We just don't get the top ones," Schuth was repeatedly told by seminary professors. And a good number of them seem to be out of sync with their congregations. Seminarians today are more conservative theologically than are Catholics as a whole, and they give far more weight to such pious practices as novenas, devotions to the Blessed Virgin, saying the rosary, and attending benediction. A significant percentage of them tend to want rigid structures, to aspire to the power inherent in the priestly role, and to depend on authority figures. They have unusually high levels of suspicion. One religious order found that a third of its entering seminarians are adult children of alcoholics or substance abusers—a group, we are told, that is a cornucopia of unmet psychological wants.
Disturbingly, according to a study by Raymond Potvin and Felipe Muncada, of Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., "religious-order seminarians who are fearful, worried, and prone to doubt are more likely to remain in the seminary and be ordained than their counterparts who are not." The tests and studies that have taken the measure of these men must be considered in context. As one priest-researcher told me, "Look at all the Irish-Catholic seminarians of years past and all the hard-drinking parents they had. Of course, we didn't have a term 'adult children of alcoholics' then, and we didn't have to fill out all the surveys these people have to. Maybe we wouldn't have come up so sweet-smelling." Also, it is important to make clear that Catholic seminaries are not populated predominantly by the psychologically lame, halt, and blind. But if the issues are future Church leadership and the manifestation of personal traits that will attract people to religion, it is apparent that an ever smaller number of Catholic seminarians are of the caliber of the men now functioning as priests.
he charts, graphs, and analyses lead to someone like Dennis Dinan, who embodies many of the traits that increasingly characterize today's Catholic seminarian. He is a student at St. Joseph's Seminary, in Yonkers, New York, which provides priests to the Archdiocese of New York. The archdiocese includes Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and an area extending a hundred miles north. Dinan is forty-two years old. His father was an alcoholic. He has a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, frequently says the rosary, and is a member of the Legion of Mary. He goes to confession weekly. He staunchly backs his church on everything from its prohibition on the use of any form of artificial birth control to the necessity of fealty to the pope and to those appointed to positions of ecclesiastical authority.
While he might be too ardent for some, Dinan is a likable, sincere man, one who is so concerned about the moral deterioration in his nation and his church that he is ready to be a priest "twenty-four hours a day, to work till I drop—and not to condemn people for doing wrong but to win them over to a better way of life." His short curly hair is graying at the temples, and though Dinan's face seldom breaks into a smile—somehow the way his mouth turns down at the edges precludes excessive levity—his unblinking brown eyes glisten with a warm intensity.
Although Dinan had thought about being a priest since he was in the second grade, he spent most of his mature life out in the world, working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and engineer. He was a daily communicant, but frankly didn't like what he was seeing in the Catholic Church. He saw newly ordained priests saying mass in what he considered too casual or colloquial a fashion, wearing vestments sloppily or only tossing a stole over their street clothes. On one occasion he witnessed a woman giving the homily—a direct violation of Church rules. Dinan was about to be married, but two months before the wedding his fiancée called it off. He moved to Boston and eventually decided to enter the priesthood, a step that would have been difficult prior to the past decade or so because of his age. He considered St. John's, in Boston, too lax (a characterization rarely attached to it) and applied to St. Joseph's.
"The priest is supposed to follow the model of Christ," he said as we talked over lunch one day some months ago in the St. Joseph's refectory. "The laity is confused when they see priests dissenting on this dogma or that, or saying a mass any way they like. When there are reasonable options in the Church, I'm for it—like placing the Eucharist on the tongue or in the person's hands. That makes sense; it makes sense to the Church. When the Magisterium gives me room, I take it. I don't think we're overly rigid or liberal here. We're in the middle; we're not in training to be robots. What we get here is the fullness of Church teaching. That's the kind of training I want.
"Look, people are searching out there. They want a framework, they want rules. That's the way to lead people, to help them change. I'm not talking about simply reciting the Church's teaching chapter and verse. No, you have to get to know the people before you can address their problems, give them time. Teaching, preaching, sanctifying—those are my jobs. I can't wait to perform them."
Dinan's home until his ordination, in 1992, is an imposing four-story early-Renaissance style granite edifice that welcomes visitors into a vaulted reception area with dual spiral staircases winding gracefully to an upper level, and a statue-rich foyer worthy of the Medicis. Dunwoodie—as St. Joseph's is popularly known, for the section of Yonkers in which it is located—is spread over forty acres, with precisely pruned trees and shrubbery, stone walkways, and a well-equipped athletic building containing an Olympic-size swimming pool, a steamroom, and a Whirlpool. It was built to house 240 seminarians. Though its curriculum yet stands firm for the old ideals and commitments of the Catholic priesthood, the hollow echoes on the gleaming terra-cotta floors call attention to the diminishing numbers of men it draws. There are only about seventy-five in training at Dunwoodie, ten or so of them sent from dioceses like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Gallup, New Mexico—staunch Catholic bastions that appreciate the classical, directed education that their sons will receive. Dunwoodie was once at the forefront of seminary education. In the early part of this century its seminarians were called Dunwoodie Dudes, for the relative splendor of the premises and the elegant attire, including top hats, that they wore when they traveled to St. Patrick's Cathedral, in New York City, for ordination. The Catholic scholarly journal that was perhaps the nation's most influential in the early part of this century, The New York Review, was published here.
Since Vatican II, when other seminaries relaxed their curricula and their dress codes, Dunwoodie has steered a steady course under the firm hands of a succession of New York cardinal-archbishops, the former Navy chaplain John O'Connor being the current one. It is one of the few seminaries in the country where the men still wear clerical dress throughout the class day and for all meals and functions: black trousers and black shirts with Roman collars, a black soutane and white surplice for mass. Not only has enrollment declined, but also Dunwoodie has lost a number of the kind of faculty members cherished by most institutions of higher learning: those who publish and are known in their field. They have left complaining that an unimaginative curriculum and uncritical loyalty to Rome produce neither good priests nor good scholarship, and that the school does not pay enough attention to the psychological deficiencies and the immaturity of those students who otherwise do well in classes, and who reflexively profess orthodoxy.
When his predecessor, Monsignor Edwin O'Brien, was named by the pope to head the North American College, in Rome, Monsignor Raymond Powers, the current rector of Dunwoodie, was one of the few priests in the archdiocese who had the three qualifications that Cardinal O'Connor demanded for the position: doctrinal certitude, an earned doctorate, and pastoral experience. The cardinal was also impressed with the subject of Powers's doctoral thesis—the just-war theory—and with his point of view, which matched the cardinal's own: "Better to have a few well-trained troops than more poorly or arbitrarily schooled ones that you really can't depend on," the rector told me. Powers is at an age—sixty-three—when most leaders of institutions of higher learning have stepped down or are about to do so. Although he is well-liked and wonderfully personable—a man with a ruddy, open face, who seems quite happy to be pulled away from his desk for almost any reason—his appointment sent a message throughout the archdiocese that there were few priests in the ranks prepared, or willing, to face the challenge of Dunwoodie.
uring a second conversation with Dennis Dinan, I found myself at a table in the refectory at Dunwoodie with a group of New York archdiocesan priests, men who appeared to be in their fifties or sixties and who had returned for some sort of meeting to the seminary that had trained them. (Later I would learn that it was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.) Across from us was a thin, almost gaunt priest from Bayonne, New Jersey, whose clerical shirt was open at the neck, the plastic tongue of his Roman collar askew, a proud symbol now seemingly limp with fatigue. He said nothing as Dinan talked further about his vision of the priesthood and the door-to-door canvassing he had done the previous summer, trying to get lapsed Catholics back to church. "Birth control," Dinan said. "So many people can't go along with the Catholic position on birth control. They don't realize that nature gives us a beautiful way of spacing children—natural family planning." The older priest nodded. Dinan went on: "They don't see that when you use contraceptives you are holding something back, you are not giving yourself completely."
"Amazing," the older priest said at one point, as part of a conversation that had begun with one of his companions but was now taking in Dinan and me. "Best-selling newsstand magazine in history, can you believe that?" he said, shaking his head. As he talked further, it became apparent that he was commenting on the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, about to appear that week. "I mean, we're talking millions of copies," he said. "Millions!"
"Pornography," Dinan said.
"Well, yeah. But they must be doing something right. Can you imagine, the best-selling..."
"Sophisticated pornography, but still pornography," Dinan said.
The veteran priest looked across the table, weary amusement on his face. Lord knows what those sad eyes had seen that week in Bayonne, what battles he had fought within and without that had etched those deep lines on his forehead and had caused those cheeks to cave in, what his vision of the priesthood had been when he sat in this room thirty or forty years before. He folded his hands in front of him and leaned across the table toward Dinan as if he wanted to impart something to him and him alone.
"What's your name, son?" he asked kindly.
The seminarian told him.
"Dennis. Ah, Dennis," the priest said, exhaling. And he got up to get himself another cup of coffee.
As I was about to leave the seminary, I met with Father Thomas Madden, who was the director of field education at the time, and who offered his assessment of the seminarians at Dunwoodie. "They are surely not like we were in my first year in the seminary, so it would be foolish to compare them," he began. "The Church is different; society is different. We had a Church that was more tranquil, one I think that many seminarians and others yearn for. That Church has been stolen away by greater contact with the world and by the internal changes from the Second Vatican Council. There were terrible misunderstandings—for example, saying that going to the Eucharist wasn't necessary if a person didn't feel like going. It's as if overnight a sledgehammer had been taken to the communion rail. The line between priests and people was demolished. Some said it was irrelevant anyway. Others felt it was vital. A seminarian might want to serve in a Church of calmer, clearer times, a Church they never knew. Seminarians are, as they have been, good men for the most part, who will be shaped and further matured by the people of the parishes they serve."
Hearing the Call
OST OF THE MEN AND WOMEN IN SEMINARIES are, by age at least, charter members of the "me generation"—supposedly self-seekers—and their motivations for pursuing theological training are being closely scrutinized, by those who teach them and by the social scientists who study them. Today's seminarians readily talk of spirituality and calls from God, of a vocation and not merely a profession, with a pre-sixties fervor. But what do they hope to find in religious training—the best way to serve others or a better way to serve themselves? Will they be predictable products of their era, or will they be somehow different?
The call to ministerial life, once so straightforward when answered by evidently upright, churched young men in their twenties, is now being heard by a wider array of people: a lesbian who is at seminary with her lover, wanting it to be a "couples experience"; a former Roman Catholic black woman at a Protestant evangelical school; an unschooled rural preacher in his fifties; a twenty-five year-old former art student and a forty-five-year-old mother of three (who is still not permitted to read Scripture at her Orthodox synagogue), Jewish candidates for the rabbinate. Or consider two of Dennis Dinan's classmates: one a former helicopter pilot, the other a convert from Presbyterianism who spent three years before seminary working with runaway teenagers.
Only about half the people in theological training today are pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, the standard credential for ordination; fifteen years ago, when the clergy were hardly at the apex of esteem, four out of five were studying for it. "People come to us frustrated by the norms of professional practice and look to religion as a way to illuminate crucial issues they want to tackle," says Constance H. Buchanan, an associate dean and the director of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School. "They realize their framework of meaning was inadequate and they want to address human values more centrally in both their professional and private lives. As for calling—yes, most M. Div. students do feel a call to some form of theological leadership. Because of what the culture has imparted, men often have to reorient themselves. For women, the call is somewhat simpler in certain aspects, because they're socialized to see nurturing as one of their primary purposes in life."
Some theological educators, though happy to see a new generation turning from Buscaglia to Bultmann, from Erhard to Eckardt, are withholding judgment. David Hubbard, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said a few years ago during a discussion for the magazine Christianity Today, "The piety and that strong personal faith that wrenches people out of one career into another are certainly there. But I'm not quite sure we have as much passion at this stage for the social outreach or the political implications of what it means to be Christian."
Whether or not they are headed for formal ordination, virtually all the older, second-career theology students, as well as younger seminarians, are going to seminaries at great personal and financial cost. Two, three, or more years at a seminary can put a person deeply in debt—tuition and living expenses (in the range of $12,000 to $15,000 a year) can match those at any graduate school, and considerable income is frequently forgone. Modest clerical salaries make it hard to pay back loans. "But money becomes a secondary issue," Ellen Charry, a Luce Scholar at Yale University Divinity School and a former staff member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, told me, "because so many people coming to seminary today have touched something that they now know they urgently need. And they have a sense America needs it too—whether they go back to express it in the workplace or in the pulpit. Yes, it is intensely personal; no, it is not the classic 'call' to ministry for many. They are in a seminary not always because they have found God but because they have decided to search for him."
"But we have to be careful as we train them," Charry added. "It is not the purpose of theological education to give a little Julian of Norwich, a little John of the Cross, a little Matthew Fox, and a little Shirley MacLaine, even though those may be the voices people have heard and which brought them to a seminary." Two from column A and two from column B, in other words, is not the way to teach—or learn—theology.
abbi Neil Gillman squinted toward the left side of the enclosed grassy courtyard of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on Broadway at 122nd Street, in New York City. He was almost ready to speak, but his hesitation implied that he wanted to summon the precise words. The seminary walls muted the din of traffic outside to no more than a dull hum. To his right were the cloister-like archways of the original structure, built in 1929 to replicate the look of the best Christian seminaries (positively monastic) at a time when American Judaism badly wanted to be accepted, if not for its religious convictions then at least for the academic rigor of its students and faculty. To his left, grafted onto the venerable red brick, was a starkly modern glass addition built in 1983, a portion of which is called the Palm Beach Friends of the Seminary wing. The structure was funded not only by Jews gone south but also by Ivan Boesky, who took courses at the seminary and gave more than a million dollars to it. (Having promised another million, Boesky was to have the entire building named after him—but his business difficulties intervened, and the plaque with his name was removed.)
"You know the biggest problem with our students?" Gillman asked. "Sounds. Tastes. Smells! Me? I didn't know anything intellectual, but I was inhaling Judaism from the cradle on. Soup and candles and boiling cabbage and latkes and gefilte fish, kasha, kreplach, pot roast."
Gillman's face, still cherubic in late middle age, relaxed, as if his olfactory system were responding to a memory. "These kids are smart, and the intellectual stuff they get easily, but it's hard to get the other: the ritual sensuality of Jewish religious life. The guts of it. How do you teach that?"
The architectural incongruity of this place, which is the fountainhead of Conservative Judaism in the United States (Orthodox Judaism, which adheres to more traditional practices, and Reform Judaism, which allows more leeway for personal choice, are the other two main branches of American Judaism), is symbolic of the dissonance in the lives of many of the young men and women who come here for training to become rabbis. Like significant numbers of Protestant and Catholic seminarians, many rabbinical students at Jewish Theological, or JTS, have not been steeped in the kind of religion they are studying and hope someday to interpret and propound. A good number come from Reform homes, many of which are not oriented toward traditional forms of observance. Likewise, the good Catholic homes and parish schools that were once the hothouses of vocations are mostly memories, and Protestant youth groups, once the anchor of many a Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist teenager's social life, must now compete with a dizzying array of possibilities. In Jewish homes of Rabbi Gillman's generation, immigrant parents lived, cooked, and prayed their testimony as the chosen ones, only to see their grown children stumbling over themselves to put Air Wick in the kitchen, take the mezuzah off the door, and generally become assimilated into an America that was finally getting used to having Jews around, unless a person was too Jewish.
It is hardly surprising that when I asked JTS students who or what inspired them to want to become rabbis, many mentioned a grandmother or grandfather from Eastern Europe, the bubbeh or zayde who quietly and doggedly kept the faith, kept the holy days, and would rather crawl than ride a bus on the Sabbath. More than one student mentioned the books of Abraham Heschel, whose soaring writings about God's relationship with man find great acceptance in both the religious and secular worlds.
"The students want authenticity, because they have been exposed to so much phoniness," Gillman said, "but they are on the periphery. They want the authenticity of Judaism and yet want to be able to pick and choose, be free to accept or reject aspects of Judaism—which puts them exactly where most of their congregations are. What differentiates them, raises them up in this secular time, is not only that they want an inner focus to their life—everybody wants that—but that they are seeking it through religious beliefs. By the time they come here they are religious, but not necessarily observant, Jews. When they have been here for a while and have seen how all the elements of Jewish life work together, we find the students taking dietary practices, daily prayer, and Scripture reading back to their homes and in a sense reconverting their parents and their friends to what they might have been brought up with. Here, at an institution that always prided itself on its intellectual rigor and steered clear of the mystical side of religion, we can now talk of what everybody calls 'spirituality.' I don't know what the word means, but to students today it means they don't want to be Jews and rabbis just for the rituals, just for symbolism, but in order to come closer to God."
evin McGinley sat between two other Jesuit seminarians at Weston as our conversation turned to what call a Catholic man might hear these days that would bring him to study for the priesthood. "It's apparent that we're already in the midst of a very spiritual age but we just don't know what to do about it," McGinley said. "So it takes the form of channeling and meditation and sometimes bizarre practices—the very stuff that seems to have taken the place of organized religious beliefs in some people's lives—but there is a lot of spirituality swirling around in the world. Sure, some people say we are throwing away our lives in becoming priests today, that we are becoming part of a Church that hasn't gone far enough. But what I see is a call to give people back what they really need and want."
David Cassidy, a student at the Interdenominational Theological Center, in Atlanta, when I spoke with him, smiled at the word "call." "Mine came with all the fire and fervor you would expect of the strict Pentecostal church I was attending. But God calls and calls and then he calls again, and you've got to listen real close to what he's saying each time. I belong to the Church of God in Christ, which is growing rapidly, but at the same time has a very narrow view of education, like too much of it can pull you away from God. I'm going to help change that. I'm going for a Ph.D. in theology at Vanderbilt after I finish here. That's the call I heard. Most recently."
The Crucible of the Classroom
HE EDUCATION OF THE CLERGY HAS ALWAYS responded to the felt needs of the congregants of the day. For most European settlers in North America those requirements were quite simple: people needed to know the holy texts that revealed their God, and they needed clergy to officiate at regular services and the rituals that mark the steps along life's path, birth to death. The minister's education was designed to give him an entrée into the lives and souls of those who were already in his flock and those he might convert. Though clerics also saw to aspects of the material needs of their flocks, they were largely trained to deal with the divine. In continental Europe, England, and Scotland, where most of America's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clergymen were trained, seminarians were taught church history, Scripture, and a minimum of theology. The earliest candidates to be trained in America as priests, ministers, and rabbis were often simply apprenticed to a clergyman and taught Scripture and theology in a work-study program. What they needed to know-from Bible-based preaching for members of denominations like the Baptists and Methodists to the more liturgical approach of the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Jews-was learned by observation and through whatever structured training the mentor had time for. The beginnings of formal religious training for the Protestant clergy were implicit at schools like Harvard and Yale in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and training in actual seminaries began in the early nineteenth century, with the founding of Andover Theological Seminary, in 1808, and Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1812. The Catholics had opened their first American seminary in 1791. Not until 1875 did the Jews create a place in America for theological studies.
Seminary education quickly became routinized, generally imitating practice abroad. Although Protestants were progressive in introducing new courses as the field of theology grew, they made few other changes in the curriculum until the late nineteenth century. A certain amount of information was imparted by the school and absorbed by the seminarian for later dispensing to his congregation. In the early twentieth century, however, it became apparent that rote study would not prepare clergymen to serve and lead their people. As late as 1957, in the now famous study The Advancement of Theological Education, of which he was a co-author, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote, "The greatest defect in theological education today is that it is too much an affair of piecemeal transmission of knowledge and skills, and that, in consequence, it offers too little challenge to the student to develop his own resources and to become an independent, lifelong inquirer."
Along with a more systematic and comprehensive approach to religious study, a new concept was developed, that of "clinical pastoral education." CPE, as it is widely known, can be regarded as an acknowledgment that well-trained clerics needed to know not only the word of God but also the word of Freud and other modern thinkers ,and practitioners, and that the congregation needed help not only with the transcendent but also with the immediate and the secular. Churchgoers were concerned with religion not only as a means to salvation but also as something that could enrich their lives. It would take Catholics and Jews another decade or more to embrace the CPE concept, but most Protestants by mid-century saw the need to train a clergy that was "professional" as well as theologically literate. An ever better educated populace, accustomed to well-trained specialists in such fields as medicine, law, social work, and psychology, expected their clergy to be able to do more than quote chapter and verse, and perform stylized rituals. The idea that clerics needed to be effective practical managers of their congregations as well as spiritual managers had come into its own. Professionalization also led the clergy to acknowledge that they must serve and heal themselves as well as others. If the hazards of their job were ignored—the loneliness, the frustration, the scrutiny—this could render them ineffectual and perhaps cause them to leave ministerial life altogether. The pastors, in short, needed pastoring.
Strangely, the issue of the personal spirituality of the Protestant and Jewish clergy was hardly addressed and not considered especially relevant. Except for the Catholic seminaries, which have always devoted a significant amount of time to a candidate's spiritual formation (often at the expense of CPE-type training), divinity schools emphasized more and more the scholastic elements of clerical study—the Bible, church history, theology—often to the exclusion of the spiritual. Theological education in the 1950s was breaking down into specialized disciplines, each taking on a life of its own: critical biblical study, dogmatics, ethics. Academic specialization set in, as it did in fields from anthropology to literature to physics. A person's spiritual life could not be quantified, charted, assessed, so it was pronounced personal and left up to the individual.
In their response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, seminaries were little different from other institutions of higher learning. Classical texts were found to be inadequate, unblinking loyalty to authoritarian structures unnecessary, and once-unquestioned truths no longer convincing. Some seminaries turned to political dialectics, to Marxist critiques, to feminist, gay, and black theologies, as paths through an increasingly complex and threatening world. At the same time, the question was raised: What was the role of the new clergy? To serve? That seemed so out of date. To empower? That seemed to be a good one; yes, it would empower. Would it be through individual conversion or systemic change? The saving of souls or the reordering of the society in which those souls must live? The debate raged on, and rages still.
N MY VISITS TO SEMINARIES AROUND THE COUNTRY, I found that no class was extolled as highly as the one taught by Katie Cannon at Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If I really wanted to see what 1990s seminary education was about, and how religious leaders should be formed, I was told, this was the course. "State of the art" and "on the cutting edge" were phrases employed by Fredrica Harris Thompsett, the school's academic dean. (Others in theological education are less enthusiastic, and feel that the school has, as one seminary educator told me, "gone over the edge.") So one Monday morning I found a seat at the back of an amphitheater-sized lecture room, having been put on notice that I could stay for only the first half of the three-hour class. The second half would be too personal; "Layers have been peeled back," Katie Cannon told me.
The first half hour of Cannon's class, "Genealogy of Race, Sex, Class Oppression," was taken up with student announcements of meetings, talks, and demonstrations; the range was from gay rights to abortion rights to newly found slave documents to the emancipation of Palestinian women. Cannon, an effervescent, mesmerizing, and quite humorous black woman, seemed pleased and patient with the long parade of opportunities presented. The class, composed that day of fifty women and five men, obviously adored her—as evidenced by the "Ahhh"s and "Amen"s, reminiscent of a revival meeting, with which they affirmed many of her statements. When near the end of the announcements, one of the men in the class conveyed his pleasure at having the opportunity to attend such a course, Cannon confided that he was not alone, and that many schools wanted her to teach, but "Can you imagine? They want to make mine a required course! How do you force a person not to be racist? Just for three credits?"
"Ahhh." "Amen." "Yes." Her class affirmed her.
"Really, there are so few that do the kind of work I do," she added.
Cannon then asked for reports on the assignment she had given during the previous session: Do not betray a girl for twenty-four hours. This was an exercise in which class members were to watch and analyze their actions toward female teenagers, trying not to oppress them as an unthinking result of their own sexist, class, or other biases. "My sister was having her fourteenth birthday party, " said one young woman, "and told me, 'I want to go out and do something real wild tonight. Nuts. Crazy. I'm only fourteen once!' And you know what I did?" she continued, her voice just a shade lower. "I told her not to do it. And I know it was gender-related, I just know it. It was internalized sexism on my part. Only now do I see what I've done."
After other stories, Cannon moved on to an oral quiz, reviewing material from the previous session. "Class location is determined by ... ?"
"Ancestry." "Manners." "Values." The answers were shouted out. "Economic income." "Education." "Religious affiliation."
"Language, motivation, expectations, " Cannon filled in. "There are thirteen of them on the handout I gave you. You've got to know them as well as you know your own name and address. Take any of them and go with it," she exhorted. "Examples."
Manners: "Someone asked me for salt and, being raised in a good home, I passed them the salt and pepper," a young woman said. "I knew better. I was asserting my class location."
Motivation: "The lazy and the slow—we in the middle and upper classes degrade them, class them," another woman said.
Ancestry: "My mother is included in a book on black and white women textile mill workers." This time Katie Cannon herself was confessing. "We grew up poor, all that. I know I've come a long way, but I just didn't want people to know about it. Can you imagine that? Me?"
Current events were mixed with ideology in class that morning, and the world was found consistently wanting. There had been an incest settlement of $10 million; but, Cannon noted, the crime was so prevalent and so badly underreported, what did that mean? The media mogul Walter Annenberg's gift of $50 million to black colleges? A pittance from an enormously rich man, leavings from his table and money made off the backs of his workers, was the students' (and their teacher's) assessment of such "benevolence."
HE EXPERIENCE OF OPPRESSION MAY OR MAY NOT truly be central to the lives of all those in Katie Cannon's class, but for students in a class taught by the Harvard-trained, Zimbabwe-born minister and theologian Temba Mafico which I attended at the Interdenominational Theological Center, in Atlanta, it is likely to be a dominant issue. And yet for them the classroom is a setting for scholastic endeavor, not therapy groups or revival meetings. ITC is a consortium of six predominantly black seminaries that banded together thirty-two years ago for economic and ecumenical reasons, and also because it was found that black seminarians who were admitted to predominantly white school ' s rarely received training in the special style of black preaching and in the needs of black churches. ITC is regarded as the premier institution in the country for the training of black clergy, and although the course offerings are little different from those in most seminaries, being black and serving blacks is at the core of its educational philosophy.
Temba Mafico took a tack different from Katie Cannon's to address oppression. He was teaching an old seminary standby, "Introduction to the Old Testament." With one exception, the forty-three students' faces in the room were, like his, black, and unlike the vast majority of other seminarians I had sat with, these were all well dressed. This was obviously serious business, and they were attired for it. "Now, look," Mafico said with a slight British accent, pressing his nose close to the words in the Bible that he held in his hand, "you can look at this as a holy book, and shout out the words on Sunday morning, and mop the sweat off your forehead, and your people will holler out, 'Testify, Preacher!' But the next day your congregation, like the day after they go to a rock concert, will have forgotten how good they felt and will remember nothing. Like how to deal with that alcoholic father or son or daughter on drugs. No, those days of empty quotes are over! Hear what the text is telling you. And what you can tell your people. Here in Deuteronomy we have the Israelites. Slaves. A fact. That's all. Blacks in American history. Slaves. Fact. Blacks in Africa. Colonialized. Fact. Why go on railing against the Egyptians or the slaveholders or those colonialists in their pith helmets? That makes us feel wonderful, but doesn't do anything for Monday morning."
"Here it is, my friends," Mafico said in a hoarse, high-pitched whisper, as if he wanted to share with them a newfound and rich secret. "History will make you know where you have been—and what God has done for you. If you only look at today, at the miserable conditions here or there, and you try to throw around those fine words of a God who did, you will fail. If you see yourself in isolation, you will put a gun to your head.
"Whether or not there was a Joshua blowing and blowing his trumpet until the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, there is a history and there is a God working in history. A God that is great, that leads slaves to freedom. But those slaves have to cooperate with His power; they can't sit on their front porch with iced tea—or something stronger! —and chastise the oppressor. The words float out and the oppressor doesn't hear them anyhow. He's on another porch, enclosed, air-conditioned. So, we in Africa were colonized and American blacks made slaves and the ag~~ Israelites made slaves. All one, no difference. God turned a bunch of slaves into a great nation. He wants to do the same for us. Today. We are not studying a God who did but a God who keeps doing. A God of history beyond the Bible. Don't think this is the word of God. The Bible is the word about God. And don't preach on Sunday of a God who said but a God who says. No more raving from the pulpit or your people will say, 'Shut up. And start talking.' Your people in the pews are educated; they won't go for it anymore. Jesus came to teach, not preach. But we have too many preachers out there with no teaching behind them. Preaching from a Bible they can quote but don't know."
"'Oh, but most honorable teacher Temba Mafico,' you will say to me, 'I am called,"' he said, piously lifting his eyes heavenward. "'You see, God has called me and I don't need all this stuff.' Well, the next time you have a headache and want to see a neurosurgeon, make sure you find one who says, 'Oh, I am called to be a neurosurgeon. Books? Who needs to know what's in the books? Now, may I begin surgery?"'
The next morning at ITC, at a chapel service in honor of Nelson Mandela, a dynamic Atlanta minister, Timothy McDonald, finished his sermon with a rhythmic chanting of the refrain "And Mandela had to wait. " This produced the "hoop," as black churches call the congregants' response to the invitation or recollection of the message. It was the kind of spirited and spirit-filled service for which the black church is well known, replete with choruses of "Amen" and "Ahhh" and "Yes." But in Mafico's class the response of the men and women—most of whom were in their thirties and forties—was to nod soberly and take extensive notes. Of the more than two hundred schools affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools, only six serve black churches. At ITC, which trains nearly one in five of black churches' clerics, the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s has been relegated to the basement of memory, a hammer that felt good to wield but didn't pound enough nails. And religious emotionalism has been reserved for religious services.
ANY OF THOSE WHO TEACH IN seminaries grant that the discipline of theology in America is currently in disarray, and that seminary education is trying to find itself. Seminaries may long have been the intellectual centers of religious life, but the dominant spirit within seminaries today is commonly branded "technological" and "utilitarian." The curriculum is said to be driven not by what congregations might need but by what the seminarian wants or demands or thinks he or she needs to be an effective professional, as well as by faculty members' interest in areas of their own specialization. (Still under debate is the sensitive issue of whether theological education should be primarily for people who intend to join the clergy or should be available to anyone who seeks it, regardless of how he or she might put it to use.) Yet while seminaries await an apocalyptic vision to guide them, they offer an impressive array of courses.
At progressive evangelical schools like Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, and Fuller Theological, even once-standard courses in "mission"—that is to say, in establishing new churches or revitalizing the moribund—have taken on new sophistication. In two classes that I attended—one of which, at Southwestern, was taught by Daniel Sanchez, who has a divinity degree in missiology—incursions into the land of the unchurched were plotted with military precision. In Sanchez's class Census Bureau statistics and other demographic reports to determine a neighborhood's profile, the assessment of existing church buildings to see if they are being maintained (if not, the need for a more committed church is obvious), counting cars in parking lots, and hypothetical models of church-founding are all employed. At Fuller the sociology of the postwar generation ("the largest unchurched group in American history") was analyzed in great detail in Eddie Gibbs's course "Reaching the Unchurched in the 1990s": what they eat, what they watch on television, what they expect and demand of service professionals. The days of going door to door with only a Bible in hand and good intentions in the heart are over.
At Jewish Theological Seminary the classical, the practical, and the theoretical are blended throughout the five years that a typical rabbinical student spends there. In David Kraemer's class on the Talmud, the students wrestle with words and passages; but the premise of the course is that before they can understand and teach the Talmud, they must be able to prove to themselves—and to a modern congregation of doubters—that the sacred text does indeed have a claim on them, "that it does not bind and restrict but continually challenges us to rethink who we are and what we want to be, " Kraemer said. "Death, Tragedy, and the Rabbi," a course in dealing with the ill, the dying, and the bereaved, considers not only grieving but also such issues as how to deal with hospital bureaucracies. "The patient and patient's loved ones see the nurse most of the time, the doctor some of the time, and the administrator never, but if something needs to be done, who has the power to change it?" asked Samuel Klagsbrun, M.D., a psychiatrist who teaches the course. In a class on modern anti-Semitism taught by Jack Wertheimer, questions were posed: "Who here thinks anti-Semitism is strictly in the mind of the beholder?" (Two hands.) "Who thinks Jews contribute to anti-Semitism?" (A dozen hands.) "Now, how can we begin to think about that?"
Again, seminary education ranges wide—the array of courses offered to today's seminarians confounds clerics who graduated just ten years ago—and while the "cutting-edge" schools proclaim the absolute necessity of adopting their approaches, even the weaker schools can say they teach "relevant" material. Christian seminarians today are far more conversant with Hindu and Muslim beliefs than their counterparts were in the past; cross-culturalism is definitely in. The education of future clerics works in new and mysterious ways.
S I THINK BACK ON WHAT I EXPERIENCED OF VARIOUS kinds of modern seminary life over months of visits, two examples for some reason stand out. One course I dropped in on, at the Weston School of Theology, had what was hardly a compelling title: "Presiding at the Church's Liturgy." Taught by the Reverend Peter Fink, a Jesuit, it involved simple role-playing. On the day I attended, one seminarian played a person going to confession and another played the priest. The first pair got through the assignment handsomely—the "penitent" had had sex with his girlfriend, drank too much, and was cheating on exams. The "priest" gently moved him to reflect on his actions and to determine for himself which offenses were the most serious and what he wanted to do about them. The second confession presented more of a problem: this "sinner" didn't provide a lot to work with—he gossiped, missed mass once, not much else. The "priest" was stymied, not knowing what to do with such minor-league transgressions, and he looked up, mouth agape and useless, at the instructor. He was a man drowning in triviality.
"Deep in your gut, what would you like to say to this guy?" Father Fink asked. The face of the seminarian was frozen, the classroom still with unease. From the middle of the class another seminarian, sensing the distress, rose from his seat, swooped down a half dozen steps, and took the place of his brother. He pointed out that such small infractions indicated a basically good life, and suggested that the penitent work not on correcting faults but on doing good works, quietly, regularly. There were no audible assents to this effortless rescue, but a simple act of compassion had made its own statement.
The other example was an evening mass at St. Joseph's Seminary, in Yonkers. The seventy or so men in their resplendent, restricted home were treated to a mass said by Father Wallace Harris, a St. Joseph's graduate and one of New York's few black priests; he was accompanied by his choir, from St. Charles Borromeo Church, in Harlem. There were some twenty women in the choir, and as they swayed into the magnificent, vaulted chapel, their voices were warm and high-pitched, the splendid mixture of their perfumes sumptuous and sensual in a great room more accustomed to clean-shaven men and wafting incense. Soon the seminarians were clapping in rhythm, rocking back and forth to old hymns that had taken on new life. Their faces were glowing; surely thoughts of the lonely rectories they will one day inhabit were far from their minds. At a reception in the refectory afterward, one seminarian came up to a choir member who had testified to the power of her Lord in a haunting, wailing solo, and said, "Boy, I wish I could sing like that." She put a beautifully manicured hand—the fingernail polish was a pulsating red—on his black sleeve and said, "Honey, I know you're doing just fine."
Sex: Of Preference and Gender
HAT IS PERHAPS THE MOST VOLATILE AND DIVISIVE issue pertaining to the immediate future of the American clergy was being quietly addressed on the bleak February day I sat in a seminar room at Yale Divinity School. The class was Religion 797b, "Readings in Liberation Theologies"—seemingly a predictable line of inquiry, given the influence wielded by such revolutionary Third World religious thinkers as Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff. But here at Yale the class was about another kind of liberation, another expression of theology. Religion 797b afforded gay men and lesbian women the opportunity to talk openly about the beauties and terrors of their sexual orientation while attempting to construct a theology that incorporates homosexuality as a natural phenomenon.
Homosexuality is the timor maximus within the seminary community and, if openly proclaimed or practiced, is considered by most denominations to be a reason for denying ordination. Some of the students in Religion 797b know that although they can speak freely at divinity school about their orientation, they cannot be so open with their denominations if they expect to be ordained. They asked me not to quote them by name.
Homosexuality in the ministry, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. Yet even with the ascendance of the gay-rights movement, homosexuality among the clergy has been an open topic only at a small number of Protestant or multidenominational seminaries that are among the most liberal: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Union Theological, Episcopal Divinity, Andover Newton, Vanderbilt, the University of Chicago, and the Pacific School of Religion, to give some prominent examples. It is emphatically not an open topic in Catholic or evangelical seminaries, and is just beginning to be discussed in some Protestant and Jewish schools. Whereas feminists have already contributed a prodigious array of articles, theses, and books expressing their viewpoint on theology, it is only within the past five years or so that a significant body of writing about being gay and a member of the clergy has begun to appear. The recent publication of such books as Homosexuality in the Priesthood and Religious Life, A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church, The Vatican and Homosexuality, and Gay Priests: Research and Comment attests to the attention paid within just one church. Each side of the debate over whether or not to train and then ordain people who are openly gay has fervent champions. Opponents point to biblical admonitions against homosexuality and argue that homosexual servants of God who live actively homosexual lives set a dubious moral example. Also, there are the political realities: do gay clergy alienate and eventually divide mainstream congregations? Advocates say it is a simple matter of justice: that to deny ordination to any sincere, otherwise qualified person contradicts the idea of acceptance that is fundamental to religious thought. They also object that denying ordination to gays smacks of Donatism, an ancient heresy in which the purity of the sacraments was believed to be dependent on the purity of the priest.
The meeting of Religion 797b that I attended was only the second of the semester, too early to be discussing what the students might have to face as ministers or how gays and lesbians form their theologies—the ultimate purpose of the course, which is taught by Letty M. Russell, a respected theologian and feminist writer. Rather, class members were talking over how they had experienced homophobia in their lives. Although the class members were predominantly gay and lesbian, this was not a requirement for the course; it was mandatory, however, that students approach the issues that would be raised from the point of view of the oppressed group—a given in liberation theology.
An unsmiling young woman, who was to lead the day's discussion, had drawn an elaborate outline on the chalkboard, titled "The Heteropatriarchal Familiast Ideology/ Social Theory." It profiled what she called the "pervasive heterosexism" in American society.
"Are we internalizing homophobia as gays by trying to have long-term monogamous relationships just like heterosexual models?" she asked, beginning her presentation. She pointed to a box containing the statement "Heterosexual, monogamous marriage and procreative sex is the highest norm." "Here, as if this were the right way to do it and any other way was wrong," she said. "Is this what we've worked so hard to do, just to fall into the heterosexual stereotype? Just to gain limited acceptance by society? By our parishes, if they'll accept us at all? Is it worth it to sacrifice everything you believe in for that?"
She went on at length, the words "pervasive heterosexism" acquiring new bitterness each time she used them. One young man knitted, another looked at her quite pensively, and many of the other men and women nodded in agreement as she quoted from an Adrienne Rich article, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," about injustices heaped upon women, from purdah to burning at the stake. Gays, single mothers, men and women who do not marry, men and women who do marry but do not have children, poor mothers with children—the student's list of the oppressed went on. "All marginalized, and heterosexual modeling is not going to save them. We need to form coalitions with them. Our objectives are the same." Her somewhat rhetorical presentation had met with no dissents to this point.
She paused, and the young man with the pensive look slowly raised his hand. "Look, my lover and I have fought too hard for six years working on a relationship to be hit with the thought that we might be modeling it after heterosexuals. Who carries out the garbage, who picks up the clothes, who puts in what money and how it's spent—that's what it's all about. Being true to each other, decent. Making a commitment and keeping it. Why condemn it?"
Theology and critical analysis would wait for another day, as more personal stories were offered—of parents who eventually admitted that they themselves were gay, of other parents who supported their children when they learned that the children were gay, of conventional marriage today and the necessity that it incorporate, as one married woman put it, "man, the problem!" The candor of the students surprised me, given that Yale, although tolerant of this class, is hardly a flawless model of nonhomophobic theological inquiry. That point was driven home last year at the chapel service for the first Yale Divinity School student to die of AIDS. The Bible on the lectern was found opened to the passage in Leviticus that is often invoked as a scriptural rebuke to homosexuals: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination."
"Homosexuality sits there as a question and powder keg in all denominations," Ellen Charry, of Yale, says, "whether they deal with it or not." And most denominations, it must be said, do not. At most schools of theology it is far easier simply not to raise the issue. There the old contract remains valid: you can be gay and be ordained unless you are flagrant about it or your activities bring shame on the church. Other schools raise the issue, and confront it sternly. "If a person is a practicing homosexual, they are making a choice and the choice entails not being a rabbi," says Gordon Tucker, a man of otherwise very liberal views, and the dean of the Rabbinical School at Jewish Theological. Fuller Seminary's Richard Mouw says of active homosexuality, "It is immoral, and if a person is living an immoral life, he or she cannot be an effective minister." The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will not allow an actively gay person to be ordained, although a Lutheran lesbian couple and a gay man were ordained in an unauthorized service early this year in San Francisco.
Within other denominations certain bishops or church leaders are well known to be sympathetic to gays and willing to ordain them. But only Reform Judaism and two smaller groups, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, have a national policy that authorizes ordaining people who are actively gay.
There is another element—an important one—in the debate over gay clergy, one that I heard expressed from East Coast to West. Of those theological schools that have been most open to gays, many have found that gay faculty and students have in turn attempted to influence curriculum, faculty appointments, and other matters. Given all the other difficulties that seminaries face, the possibility of a "gay veto" is not an issue that most schools are eager to take on.
CCEPTING THE OPENLY GAY INTO SEMINARIES AND then into pulpits is a difficult issue in many denominations, but it is perhaps most deeply troubling in the Catholic Church. In many other churches, where the ordination of women is permitted, the supply of clergy has generally met demand. (The Episcopalians actually hold people back from entering seminaries, because there is a surfeit of priests in some dioceses and a lack of open positions.) But in the Catholic Church, where women cannot be ordained and priests cannot marry, the number of available priests is declining at an ever greater rate. Catholic schools and colleges that once had huge staffs of clergymen now have a token few; chaplaincies go vacant. In the Catholic Church the ratio of clergy to faithful is already worse than 1:1,500, and becoming wider. In the Lutheran Church it is about 1:500, in the Episcopalian 1:300.
This shortage is embarrassment enough to the largest church in America, one that claims as a member one American out of five. Even more troubling is the question: Is the Catholic clergy, which can accept only men and can no longer afford to be selective, turning more and more gay? For many Catholics the answer is positively mortifying. The priest and novelist Andrew Greeley has been outspoken in assailing the proliferation of "lavender rectories"; estimates of the proportion of Catholic priests who are gay run from 20 percent to as high as 40 percent. In 1987 the Reverend Richard McBrien, the chairman of Notre Dame's theology department, posted thirty-nine questions in the pages of the influential Catholic periodical Commonweal, and sent shock waves through the Church:
What impact does the presence of a large number of gay seminarians have on the spiritual tone and moral atmosphere of our seminaries?... How many heterosexual seminarians have decided to leave the seminary and abandon their interest in a presbyterial vocation because of the presence of significant numbers of gays in seminaries and among the local clergy?... Do homosexual bishops give preference, consciously or not, to gay candidates for choice pastorates?...
What are the realities? "First of all, it can be said with some assurance that there are more, proportionately, homosexual priests today than, say, twenty years ago," McBrien says. "The pie is smaller and gays are a bigger part of it. Yes, more heterosexual than homosexual priests have left, and yes, it is easier to live an active homosexual life-style than a heterosexual one as a priest. Going on a skiing vacation with a buddy is certainly acceptable; with Miss, Ms., or Mrs. Jones, hardly." One result from a questionnaire given to Catholic seminarians in 1984 provided added cause for alarm. More than 50 percent responded that the statement "The male body sometimes attracts me" was true, whereas about 35 percent did in 1969.
Priests like Greeley, McBrien, and others who have addressed the issue of gays in the priesthood are hardly censorious about homosexuality. The issue within the Catholic Church is not so much being gay and ordained as being ordained, sexually active, and part of a gay culture. "I hear about it too often from the seminary people I know," McBrien says. "How heterosexual males are being forced out, discouraged by the excessive number of homosexuals in the seminary. It was always there; we knew guys were gay in my day. But today the balance is being tipped in their favor. Claiming celibacy is a wonderful cover for gays, and let's face it, the seminary presents a marvelous arena of opportunity for them." Tales of sexual harassment by both faculty members and fellow classmates have emerged from some Catholic seminaries; whispers are heard of dioceses where gay priests seem to get better appointments because of their bishop's sexual orientation. But if there is a powerful gay underworld in the Catholic Church, it would be news to anyone who has seriously studied the institution. The concern seems to be less the current situation—and the current number of gay priests—than the direction of change. As the Reverend John Coleman, a sociologist at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California, has observed, "I'm sure that gay people make good priests. But when a disproportionate number of priests, even if chaste, have a different sexual orientation than the population they serve, this is a serious issue."
F THE SEXUAL PREFERENCE OF ITS clergy is an issue that is especially troubling to the Catholic Church, Catholicism at least has so far been spared the upheaval that reliably follows a decision to begin to admit women to the ministry. (Other denominations that do not accept women as clergy include the Greek and Russian Orthodox, the Orthodox branch of Judaism, some churches in the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions, and the Seventh Day Adventists; only a few churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have done so.) But overall, women are enrolled in record numbers in American seminaries. In accredited Protestant and interdenominational seminaries the number of women seeking a degree that would prepare them for ordination more than doubled from 1976 to 1986, from 2,905 to 6,103. And although considerable effort has been made to ease them into parishes and into jobs that were once the exclusive domain of men, the impact of women clerics today is mixed at best.
Year after year the number of women seminarians continues to set records, but though it is quite ordinary to see more women than men in mainstream Protestant seminaries—and a large proportion of women in Reform and Conservative Jewish seminaries and in those liberal Catholic schools of theology that allow them—the reality of what American churches and synagogues want has had a chilling effect. Although enormous strides have been made in the acceptance of women clerics, it is still a rare
seminary graduating class in which the percentage of women receiving calls to pulpits matches that of men.
The real problem for women isn't finding a first job, however. "There are jobs as college chaplains or assistants at bigger churches, or specialty jobs like music or education," Ellen Charry says. "The problem is when the choice comes down to a man or a woman for the average-sized parish, or when an opening occurs in the bigger, most prestigious churches or temples. Women complain bitterly about the 'glass ceiling' they keep hitting—invisible but there. " Jackson Carroll, a professor at the Hartford Seminary, and the co-author of Women of the Cloth (1982), one of the first books on female clerics, says, "I think if you'd track a seminary class over the years, you'd find that by the time men and women reach, say, their third assignment, men are significantly ahead, both in size of church and salary. More and more churches are open to women, but a church that has a woman pastor now might not want another woman, for fear of being called 'a woman's church.'"
Perhaps even more important than the numbers of women in churches or high church positions is the issue of their impact. "Oddly enough, we know very little about it," Carroll says. 'There are those who say women are more affirming and democratic, less authoritarian than men—and I basically agree with that—while others insist that women's ministerial style is not and should not be different from men's." Leon Pacala, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says, "For sure, churches are being forced to look at women's issues, and that is good. There is a lot of debate in the field as to whether or not a certain type of woman goes into the ministry. It's all so new; we only have hunches and little hard data. But just that churches have accepted the validity of women clergy is a monumental step in itself."
The Education of the Soul
IGNIFICANT CHANGE OF ANOTHER KIND, TOO, IS sweeping through American seminaries. Spirituality has been rediscovered. Ari Goldman, a New York Times reporter who attended Harvard Divinity School, says, "The mere mention of God—an omniscient God, God as a transcendent being—when I was there, just five years ago, would be guaranteed to produce snickers." Since Goldman's day a former dean of HDS, Krister Stendahl, has been appointed its chaplain—a post, oddly enough, for which the venerable 184-year-old school never before saw the need. "'My mind is being fed, but my soul is dry'—I've heard this in one form or another almost from the day I got here," says Dean Thiemann, who created the position. "There were spiritual motivations that led people to come here in the first place. Our challenge is to address those needs by integrating the life of the spirit with the academic study of theology."
At Jewish Theological students explore their personal spiritual life in the required "Rabbinical School Seminar, " whose class size is generally limited to six or seven. (Many other seminaries have started similar courses.) "We want rabbinical school to transform, not only to train," says JTS's Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who recently oversaw a revamping of the school's curriculum. "The old way was to teach a rabbi what he needed to know. Yes, you must be rooted in the classical texts, but you must also be emotionally committed to Judaism. We are looking for people who want to be rabbis as much as they want to become rabbis."
"We work very hard so that it is not merely a feel-good kind of spirituality," says James Butler, who teaches "Biblical Wisdom Literature" at Fuller. "One of the television evangelists has taken the Bible and highlighted in blue all the positive messages, places where the reader can get all pumped up. In Ecclesiastes, 'There is a season É a time for everything É' pops out at you and seems so uplifting; but later on, 'But what gain does the worker have from his toil?' No blue over those words. Not nearly so uplifting. People come here clutching Bible to chest and ready to quote righteously at the drop of a hat. True spirituality goes much deeper than that. There's a lot of pain in it too."
A resurgence of interest in spirituality began back in the mid-1970s, even as many people were turning away from religious rituals and studying, say, myth-writing instead. Ellen Charry says, "It began to dawn on them that there just wasn't enough there to build a life on. Today's seminarians, except for the most conservative denominations, come with a sophisticated, post-critical outlook—ready to confront the inconsistencies, the vagaries of Scripture—but also a primitive, basic spiritual need. They sense that just being a competent professional isn't enough; they want firm spiritual grounding."
"Spiritual direction"—wherein the person being directed meets regularly with a mentor to discuss the state of his or her inner life—is sought after in most seminaries across the country. Spiritual direction has always been a staple of the Catholic seminarian's formation, but now those training to be Protestant and Jewish clerics have discovered the benefits of a continuing one-on-one relationship that focuses exclusively on this aspect of life. Because of a dearth of "spiritual masters," it is not uncommon for non-Catholic and even non-Christian seminarians to go to Catholic clergymen and read Catholic classics such as The Cloud of Unknowing, The Practice of the Presence of God, and Seeds of Contemplation.
Southwestern, a huge Southern Baptist seminary that built a library around biblical and theological study, recently bought—at considerable cost—the entire library of a Carthusian monastery because of the thousands of volumes on Western spirituality it contained. John of the Cross and other giants of what has always been considered Catholic spirituality are now spoken of at Southwestern in the same sentence as Calvin or Luther or Roger Williams. "In the past, students came to us spiritually sound, with years of undergirding," says Southwestern's president, Russell Dilday. "Now we have students who are Christians only two months. Without spiritual formation they're going to have a rough time out there."
HE NEW EMPHASIS ON SPIRITUALITY IN SEMINARIES has, predictably, engendered enormous hope among some educators, but it has also caused enormous problems on two broad fronts. First, many of those who teach in seminaries have routinely kept their spiritual lives to themselves, even as they have tried hard to establish the disciplines of theological education as serious, dispassionate, academic pursuits, immune from such unquantifiables as faith. The influx of "seekers" is looked upon warily by some. Second, some other faculty members—gene rally younger ones, who were in graduate schools during the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s—tend toward an orientation that could variously be described as anti-institutional, anti-dogmatic, deconstructionist, "post-Christian," or Marxist. As graduate students these faculty members were relentless in their questioning of smug sectarianism or unthinking adherence to a creed, and some would say unapologetically that the God who brought them into such studies did not make the cut as the new, lean team was chosen.
In a way these faculty members, who are to be found disproportionately at the liberal, university-based divinity schools, represent something of a lost generation of American religious leadership and scholarship. Now in their forties and fifties, they have adopted religious beliefs and values that diverge sharply from tradition. Some of these teachers are feminists; others have roots in the radical politics of the 1960s; still others view the world through the lens of race. Radicalism threatens to become central to the curriculum in some schools, and faculty appointments are often made on the basis not only of scholarship but also of political outlook. Religious beliefs are hardly considered. As for religious practice—attending or working in a local church? Please!
Some schools have resisted this radical tendency—Yale for one, Princeton for another—but at Union Theological and Harvard Divinity, famously, radical faculty members exert considerable influence.
I had been told that one faculty member at Harvard who was greatly concerned by the situation was Paul D. Hanson. So, questions in hand, I visited him one afternoon in his quarters as master of Dudley House, one of Harvard's undergraduate "colleges." I asked just one question and he was off—I didn't have to ask a second.
"Look, I can see how people get disillusioned with the church. A very imperfect body. But the pendulum is now where not a revision but a negation of tradition is espoused in the classroom. If you approach theology as a deconstructionist, it falls apart in your hand. Too often the feminism that is espoused is patently post-Christian. The socalled new thinking when applied to Scripture and symbols comes up with largely negative results. The patriarchy of the Apostles, the exclusion of women in language—these are all products of an ancient civilization that have to be understood in their time. We must be able to sort out the liberating dynamics from the historical accents. When we lose sight of the transcendent God, we begin to create our own gods.
"Can the sisterhood replace ecclesiology as the norm? Can the symbol of a raised fist replace the symbol of the cross? The thinking is that we should no longer look to Christianity for myths and symbols but to modernity; feminism, for example, will produce new and better and more-inclusive symbols. Pluralism is not a buzz word any more; it is here. But should such plural ism within seminaries merely reflect society or attempt to shape it?"
"But you know what?" Hanson hesitated, as he did rarely, not for formulation but for emphasis. "You have to have faith, you have to trust, to do this. Our beliefs have the power to redeem society, and we must go beyond scrutiny to guidance, beyond the scientific study of religion. Beyond the transient movements of the day. We need to be caretakers of a unique part of the university. And we have to provide something—for God's sake, something—so our students can go out with hope. My fear is that without a faculty with a clear vision of what we are about, we will reflect more than shape. Where are the Reinhold Neibuhrs and Paul Tillichs, men who forged a moral vision for America? These men could not have been produced in an era of schizophrenia like we are now witnessing, where ideologies—often conflicting ideologies—are central. I say it, and not at all facetiously, that it is essential for students to have a strong faith before they come here. They will be sorely tested when in one class they hear of Christ as savior and liberator and in the next as irrelevant or actually part of the oppressing forces."
The beliefs and practices of seminary teachers are increasingly important in theological education now that it is becoming clear that a brilliant faculty of agnostics may produce some interesting scholars and scholarship but will do little to help shape men and women for careers in the ministry. The issue is dealt with forthrightly in evangelical, fundamentalist, and conservative seminaries, where faculty members are often asked to sign a statement of beliefs. But such a pledge would be anathema to seminaries that have prided themselves on academic freedom and are in fact the very schools that brought theological scholarship out of a strictly parochial framework. "The statement was proudly made for years at Jewish Theological by more than one member of the faculty that 'I teach Torah here the same way I would teach it at Yale or Harvard,'—and they weren't referring to the divinity schools," Rabbi Gillman says. "We continue to place a high premium on scholarship, but academic excellence alone does not make a rabbi. We have to stop training people who love Judaism and hate Jews; we need workers out there, not only scholars. But I feel sorry for the young faculty here-they were hired for their scholarship and are promoted on the basis of scholarship. They are career academicians and now we are also asking them to bring their personal religious commitments into the classroom."
As for the Catholic Church, the fundamental issues of who teaches in seminaries and what is taught have conspired to produce distressing results. In terms of scholarship the output of Catholic seminary teachers is surely more meager than that of teachers in the other two major religious groups. Because of the severe shortage of priests, the beleaguered yet loyal priest-teacher in a seminary is stretched terribly thin. He must carry an unusually heavy teaching load, act as spiritual director and faculty adviser for a number of students, perform collateral tasks within the administration, deliver a sterling homily when his turn comes to celebrate the community mass—and, because he usually lives on a floor with them, be available to seminarians who are constantly stopping in. On weekends he may go to a parish to hear a few confessions, perform a marriage and a baptism or two, and say two, three, or four masses. Some of the religious-order seminaries (such as Weston) and collaboratives (such as Washington Theological Union) have Catholic faculty m embers who are consistently publishing books and articles and are sought-after speakers. But at precious few freestanding diocesan seminaries (the Chicago area's University of St. Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, is one of them) is notable scholarship or acclaimed teaching in evidence.
As priests become scarcer and the Catholic seminaries increasingly turn to lay teachers, the best of those laymen and laywomen are wary. "Who would want to teach in a fishbowl like that?" says one priest who teaches at an order seminary. "The pope is looking over their shoulder. Any fervent seminarian could turn them in at any time to the bishop if they stray from accepted doctrine. They don't have any job security or prestige among their contemporaries and they are in an atmosphere where research and writing is considered fluff—'Good teachers teach; pitch in, buddy; we're all carrying a heavy load and there you are, reading over in the library!"'
The Real World
HIS GENERATION OF SEMINARIANS WILL SOON be visited upon us, regiment after regiment, flying the colors of the faith, denomination, or ideological orientation that they feel best defines them. Or, as religious moles, ministers without portfolio disguised in well-cut suits and fine silk blouses, they will quietly slip back into corporate life. They include people of modest intellectual ability and people who are brilliant; they include homosexuals and homophobics; they preach a literal Scripture, they deconstruct it; they follow a party line, they will be bound by nothing but their conscience; they will perform their ministry within a church, they will do it as a partner in a law firm; they are dependent upon authority, they will fight the system; they have received a superior education, they have been spoon-fed pablum by inadequate teachers. They are a lesbian couple and a celibate deacon, a Christian sure that Christ is the answer, a Christian who wonders if Christ is the problem, a Jew who would not claim that his religion has all the answers, even for Jews.
Whatever their abilities or shortcomings, they will seek to reoccupy the territory that the clerics before them have seen slip away. They are charged with revivifying our souls and directing our society toward a sense of justice informed by faith. They face us, a postmodern populace that wonders if it may have evolved beyond the religious institutions that sustained this country for more than 200 years. At a minimum, the past few decades have made it clear that many Americans look at formal religion, churches, and, indeed, the ordained ministry with no small measure of unbelief. Many Americans would not concede—except perhaps in the darkest hours of a restless night—that they want religion to shape their lives.
This "us" that future clerics will be dealing with is as fragmented as the clergy itself, but we are united by a few strands. Religion 'is just one of many options we are offered if we seek self-knowledge and inner peace. If we choose to follow a religious faith, no longer do we join or stay with a church because it was where our family worshipped. We go not out of a sense of obligation but, so we claim, because we have picked and chosen, and are discerning consumers about even this. It may be the child care offered, the music or level of preaching or social commitment, the charisma of the pastor. But all those incidentals break down, I think, in the face of some simple, persistent truths: many of us go out of naked need, and of those of us who don't go on Sabbath or Sunday, most have the same need and don't know what to do about it. Perhaps our religious commitment is deeper because it is no longer expected or demanded of us. But we know, as a certainty, that it is hard to be a self-made good person. And we sense that secular morality and the laws of the marketplace lack something basic.
So how will these seminarians fare? Are they what we need or want? If only we had the GREs, SATs, and Rorschachs on Abraham and Jesus, Ignatius, Luther, and Wesley, reports on their early field placements, it might be easier to predict. Each of today's seminarians—at least each of those who think of the work as vocation and not merely occupation— —has a vision, his or her own plan, macro or micro, to reach us. As I traveled from place to place, I heard the seminarians talk of their aims and I watched them trying to live out their beliefs. Certain people stand out, offering fleeting glimpses of who they are and glimmers of what they might become.
Some of them—perhaps a good number of them—may never make a satisfying connection with the real world. That sad truth was brought forcefully home during a mostly valuable program I attended called "Seminarians Interacting," sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. A diverse mixture of some sixty men and women was present—Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, mainstream and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, blacks, whites. We sat in a ground-floor lounge on the campus of General Theological, an Episcopal seminary in New York, for one of the discussion groups. Before the group leader, an NCCJ staff member, could begin to try to direct the discussion, a Lutheran looked at a Jew and said she wondered why Jews would even want to talk with Christians, when Christians had been responsible for so many atrocities against Jews. The staff member tried again to get the discussion started. A female student whom I would later see in Katie Cannon's class, at Episcopal Divinity School, interrupted, registering umbrage on another topic. "Look around you at the male authority pictures in this room. Were there no women in this church? My church! I'm uncomfortable here. I'm offended!" The group members peered up sheepishly at the paintings of some of General Theological's most celebrated teachers and presidents. The discussion, floored before the opening bell, staggered to get off the canvas. Halfway through the session the talk turned to what members of the clergy uniquely provide as counselors, and how they can prevent personal burnout. David Krainin, of Jewish Theological, spoke of a course he was taking that dealt with trying to help people through times of crisis, and noted that his instructor had come up with what to him was an apt analogy. "Don't let people stick to you like you were a tar baby. If you're really going to help them, that's not going..."
"Tar baby" rang the racist bell in the head of the EDS student who had spoken up earlier, and she would have none of that kind of talk. What was a word that could be substituted for "tar baby"? she asked. The lounge was quiet once more, and the Episcopal fathers on the walls stared off to a distant horizon. The look on David Krainin's face took me back to the refectory at St. Joseph's Seminary on that day when the exhortation against pornography was visited upon that fatigued priest with his Roman collar askew. Krainin's look was at once kindly, amused, and slightly amazed.
UT IN MY VISITS I ALSO MET MEN AND WOMEN WHO did manage to connect. I traveled on the IRT subway with two Dunwoodie seminarians, Tom Lynch and Martin Maher, as they went to their field placement on New York's Lower East Side. They would spend the day at the New York Foundling Hospital, playing with some seven- and eight-year-olds, showing them that although they had been rejected by their families or sent there by the courts, there was a love that transcended the chaos and hurts of their lives and would never abandon them. I listened to Aaron Bergman, a burly-chested Jewish Theological student who looked more like a member of a wrestling team (as if JTS would have such a thing!) than of the rabbinate, as he spoke about the faith that he hoped to instill. He was laboring at a temple in one of those lush suburban vineyards—in Westchester County—where money was not a problem but meaning was. He wanted to make Judaism "part o their lives as it has become part of mine: not a ball and chain but a good, pleasurable thing, the center of family life as it has been for centuries." I sat at lunch in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Fort Worth with five Southwestern students, as one of them, Kelly Broom, talked of her work with AIDS patients, therejection shown them by the church, and her desire to 11 earn the right to talk to them about Jesus."
And then there was Henderson Spivey, once a shoeless sharecropper's son but now a stately fifty-five-year-old man in a bowler hat, crisp yellow shirt, and three-piece suit. For twenty-five years, before taking early retirement from his job in insurance and enrolling at Interdenominational Theological Center, he had been an unschooled Pentecostal preacher in rural Georgia. "It eventually got to me," he said. "Every time I heard 'black male,' 'black male,' on the news reports, it hit me in the gut. Black males can do more than commit crimes. I want to walk the streets—like Socrates—and sit and talk to teenagers, to convince them how precious they are in God's sight, what promise they have. I came to seminary to stop being a preacher so that I could begin to be a pastor."
If they are to succeed, this generation of seminarians must, of course, be educationally and spiritually sound, politically aware, as conversant with demography as they are with morality. They must be sensitive to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, but they must not drive us up still another wall with their convictions. We have been flogged enough; we know our shortcomings. When our future clerics speak, we want to hear powerful yet measured voices bringing out the moral dimension of life, and not only the politics of the left wing of the Democratic Party or the right of the Republican, masquerading as religious belief.
We want them to be people who in some tiny way reflect the mercy and goodness of the God we want to know, not only his judgment. We want them to be people who see the goodness in us that we have yet to unleash, the potential within us to transcend our differences. In the end, I think, we are looking for those who will help us find that voice deep within us which is not our own, but calls us to do what is right.
Copyright © 1990 by Paul Wilkes. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1990; The Hands That Would Shape Our Souls; Volume 266, No. 6; page 59.