Recently, I have talked with those considering calls to the priesthood who were turned away because they also happened to have a call to an academic vocation as well. They were told that they were too academic to pursue a call to priestly ministry and that they would have to choose either a vocation to the priesthood or an academic career.
One of them was told that the church needed to find people who were interested in doing things not just thinking about them. Others on another committee mused that they had professors in seminary who were priests as well and just couldn’t understand why they were priests (because they worked as full time academics).
When I went through the ordination process, we were literally told to hide any hint of an academic vocation from the committee so that they would not hold it against us. When I did let slip that this might be something I was considering, I was told dismissively, “We don’t ordain Jesuits in this diocese.” In other words, I had better choose.
In my opinion, this is an incredible waste and a disturbingly shortsighted view of priestly ministry. We need priests and pastors with an academic background just as we need academics with the training and experience of priestly ministry. We are off in a dangerous place when we decide that some of those coming forward are too smart to be made priests.
There is a general anti-intellectualism in American life. Of course, in the Episcopal Church, we pride ourselves on being exempt from such a thing. We are all too happy to talk about not having to “check your mind at the door” when you come to our churches. Yet it seems that you better be ready to do just that if you want to enter the ordination process in some of our dioceses.
We scoff at those who read Scripture literally. Yet we are going to create a Church where the only fundamentalism we embrace is that of individual feelings.
Doctrine – and sound training in doctrine – is essential for priestly ministry. It is part of what differentiates us from the spiritual but not religious. I think poor training in doctrine is at the root of why so many are now calling themselves spiritual but not religious. We need a generation of clergy ably trained in doctrine who can articulate what it is about our particular faith tradition that is unique and life-giving. Moreover, this cannot be done in isolation from training in other fields like psychology, philosophy, the arts, science, and more.
We simply cannot offer any answer worth hearing if we do not have priests trained to think theologically and who can delve into our tradition in creative ways to answer complicated questions and profound doubt.
How do we answer questions of life and death with no grounding in eschatology? How do we talk about our understanding of ordination and ministry without preparation in ecclesiology and sacramental theology? How do we defend our view of baptismal ecclesiology without adequate training in incarnational theology? How do we talk of Body and Blood without using all of our gifts of history and theology to articulate where we stand as Anglicans?
These are not esoteric questions being asked only on the close or the quad at our seminaries. These questions are at the heart of pastoral ministry.
When someone asks you, “What happens when my mother dies?” When someone asks you, “Why is this happening?” When someone asks you, “Why should I baptize my child?” When someone asks you, “Am I a bad person for seeking a divorce?” from an abusive spouse. When someone asks you, “Why all this sacrificial language?”
There are innumerable questions and there are those hard stories we all hear that challenge our faith.
When a gay teen is beaten in the name of religion, when our fellow men and women are tortured in our name, when women are profoundly mistreated, when poverty is allowed to grow unchecked and unquestioned – when these and countless other sins abound, the only answer we have is sound doctrine. This is the kind of teaching that throws down the mighty from their seats – and we need priests and pastors who can offer just such profoundly grounded wisdom.
When someone faces these deep questions, the only thing we have to rely upon is the faith we have received. The faith that is the product of the movement of the Holy Spirit over generations of believers and is ours to offer – yet we have to work to understand what it is we are offering. Just as we might agree that faith without works is dead – faith without inquiry, study, reflection, and intellectual engagement is just as dead.
These questions are profoundly theological ones and sound theology is the most pastoral thing we can offer. Of course this does not mean a dry recitation of Augustine on just war. Nor does it mean vague, wan sharing of our feelings about things that make us sad. It requires a meaty answer that is simple in its articulation and deep in its grounding – it requires the kind of answer that Jesus or his disciples would have given.
Doctrine is not about right answers – it is about right relationships. Doctrine is that which encodes our relationship with the Triune God and with one another. It is our ultimate guarantee of dignity for it lays out our compact as the beloved of God. Sound doctrine defends and defines the fullness of human nature and worth. Without it, we only have human perception to rely upon which too quickly turns to manipulation and capitulation.
We need priests passionate about asking deep questions about doctrine and dignity. We need academic priests.
Especially in a time when we are wrestling with just how many parishes can afford a full-time priest – we are almost deranged to turn away those who might have a gainful way to support themselves while at the same time enriching the lives of their faith communities by their learning. We need many other kinds of priests as well but we are doing serious harm to our Church’s future and our ability to have any kind of relevant voice in the theological questions of the future without raising up a generation of scholar-priests who are faithful, curious, and spiritually grounded.
We should be seeking out faithful academics to call into priestly ministry and supporting priests who might have an academic vocation in every way possible. We cannot afford to have an academy divorced from the day-in and day-out practice of ministry and we cannot afford to have priests who are not devoted to faithful inquiry.
As the bumper sticker says, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”