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The Uses of an Ecumenical Seminary

by Donald W. Shriver, Jr.

Dr. Shriver was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1984, p. 106. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I remember the day in 1955 when, as a newly arrived graduate student, I talked with Professor H. Richard Niebuhr about my academic trek leading to Yale Divinity School. When I told him that I had graduated from North Carolina’s Davidson College and Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, he exclaimed, “Ah, the royal road for Southern Presbyterians!”

The denominational educational road was well traveled in those days. For many theological students of the 1980s, it is still a good route. But some could serve their denominations better if they chose a more ecumenical path -- or so I want to argue here.

My argument is directed to students from all the denominations, to those who send them to seminary, and to those who by word and deed influence their choices of seminaries. I address myself to national church leaders; to leaders of dioceses, synods, presbyteries and conferences; and to leaders of congregations -- all those who have a special stake in and special responsibility for strengthening a particular church and a particular denomination.

I speak as one who has a special interest in the strength of a particular ecumenical seminary, but also as one who knows that he, too, has both a stake in and responsibility for the life of particular churches. Theologically, I know that the Christian community encompasses far more than the Presbyterians. And institutionally, I know that the vitality of my school, New York’s Union Theological Seminary, has a deep connection with the vitality of the denominations themselves.

Conventional wisdom often suggests to ministerial candidates that three years in a denominational seminary are professionally and pragmatically essential for their future careers. The formula goes, “You need to know the church that will ordain you.

Yes, one does. But where will one come to know it? For some the answer is in the ecumenical seminary.

“I never felt more a United Methodist than I have here,” said one of our recent students at Union. I have heard similar remarks from students at Yale, Harvard and University of Chicago divinity schools.

At such a seminary, Lutherans, for example, see their church allegiance illuminated and enriched by their dialogue with Baptists and Roman Catholics. In a way often impossible in a denominational setting, they become critically conscious of what is unique to their heritages. In classroom and dormitory, they confront the varieties of Christian experience, and they must think through their reasons for believing in the truth of their own traditions.

To be sure, the trend in denominational seminaries these days is away from the huge predominance of students from the one tradition and toward a broader representation of students from other denominations. A Presbyterian seminary, for example, may have 30 to 50 per cent of its students coming from non-Presbyterian churches. There is a great difference, however, when (as at Union) the largest denominational student group (which happens to be Presbyterian) totals only 17 per cent of the student body. In such a school, no particular group comes close to being in the majority. This sense that “everyone is a minority” profoundly marks the culture of an ecumenical seminary. Everyone has reason to search for some justification of his or her own ecclesiastical particularity.

Contrary to what some church leaders have assumed about educational results in the ecumenical setting, our students do not emerge as adherents of some homogenized set of lowest-common-denominator beliefs. Nor is denomination-hopping common. Rather, our students graduate as thoughtful loyalists holding to the affiliations they arrived with. In this tendency they are often following the pattern of faculty members who have remained vigorous contributors, professionally and personally, to the lives of their respective denominations.

A variation on the conventional wisdom appeals to the anxieties of students about their career prospects: “You need to get to know the people who will be your colleagues in the ministry for the rest of your life.”

Yes, one does. But the question is who those colleagues will and ought to be. In ecumenical seminaries students naturally seek out peers and faculty members of their own denominations for shared worship, discussion, study and action. They take on fieldwork in congregations or other organizations of their own faith traditions. They take courses not only in general church history but also in their own denominational history, theology and polity. But with every step of their educational trek goes a company of diverse companions who alert them to the diversity of the Christian movement itself. Their colleagues of the future include these adherents of other traditions.

It is a pragmatic as well as a theological point. To identify one’s future colleagues as the members of one’s own denomination is not only narrow; it is unrealistic, especially for the life of a local parish minister. Unless they are totally sectarian, the ministers of any American town or city meet one another, learn from one another, recognize their need of one another, and develop collaborations accordingly. Only in this way can they have a perceptible impact on such pastoral-prophetic local issues as how sick people can get better care, how the homeless can find decent housing, and how the voice of the church can be heard in the din of competing voices at city hall.

For a minister to be a leader -- or even a valuable member -- of these local collaborations, he or she needs to respect, to understand, and to empathize with brother and sister clergy across the spectrum.

Such a minister needs also to perceive the problems of pluralism, as well as its values -- and all this is easier for one already educated in ecumenical encounter. To be effective, a modern minister needs to have moved beyond holding stereotypical views of the “mainline Protestant,” the “Catholic priest” and the “black preacher.” That movement has already taken place for the ecumenically educated, before the first day of the first job in a congregation.

There is a congregational version of this local ecclesial reality. Few thriving congregations today consist wholly of members born and bred in the same denominational tradition. A minister whose career is suffused with a perception of the “great church,” whose thinking bears the imprint of his or her acquaintance with living members of many church traditions, will be a minister who understands and knows how to welcome people searching for a new church home, those who have married into a new denomination, and those who feel that they must turn away from some aspect of their own history.

These ministerial qualities are also essential to regional, national and international denominational life. In view of the multiple challenges of secularism and social change in the modern world, no denomination can afford to fuel its mission with energies and perspectives drawn only from its own historical tradition. Now as seldom before in history, Christians need each other as they confront the issues of war, hunger, oppression and totalitarianism. Denominations need specialists with the talent, training and instinct for knowing how ecumenical collaborations develop, on the most local to the most global levels. It is one service of the ecumenical seminary to offer to the churches persons with just these qualities.

All of this argument comes down to three claims. The first is this: An ecumenical education can help cure us all of our natural ecclesiastical provincialism.

Provinces are places where all humans have to begin. Without some province to call home, none of us is whole in political, social or churchly terms. But our real growth -- our education -- as fully formed persons comes as we connect with people from other provinces, thereby ceasing to be merely provincial.

Only a narrow political persuasion convinces people of any national culture today that they are the representatives of the only true humanity. Only a very narrow sectarianism convinces any Christian that the “true church” is bottled under only one historic label. The great denominational schools of America are among the first to admit this; but few of them are in a position to press their perception of the diversity of the Christian community as systematically, as hourly, as are the great ecumenical seminaries. When 15 traditions crowd into a faculty of 30, when 40 traditions crowd into a student body of 400, there is a rapid critical heightening of the awareness that, among Christians, the parts make up an awesome whole. After three years of rubbing mind and spirit with people from all those other spiritual provinces, students can never again assume that every “real Christian” is just like them. And they will return to their own province not only with a certain sense of security, but with the understanding of education embodied in T. S. Eliot’s line:

           the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
           [“Little Gidding, “Four Quartets].

A second claim: All Christian denominations can be strengthened by the ecumenical education of some of their clergy. Should all students preparing for the ministry, then, be educated solely in ecumenical seminaries? No, indeed. Applicants for seminary study come from a great variety of church backgrounds these days, some from no background at all. We occasionally meet a student who is becoming acquainted with the faith, the church and the ministry more or less simultaneously. The ecumenical seminaries are probably ill equipped to educate such a person well. For a student who was brought up a Unitarian but has just decided to become an Episcopalian, the case for absorbing the Episcopal “ecclesial culture” in one of that denomination’s seminaries is strong. To understand and serve any particular group of church members, a minister must appreciate the shaping power of the polities, theologies, liturgies and customs that are normative for, that group.

Who are the “some” among denominational students who should most be encouraged to come to the ecumenical seminary? My answer, directed to denominational leaders, may surprise them: Don’t urge your candidates with marginal denominational loyalties to come to our place for three years of M.Div. study. Rather, send us those who are most solidly rooted in your heritage, those who best represent you, those who will bring their strengths, and yours, to us and our strengths back to you.

And my third claim is a corollary: While some students can profit greatly from a full three years at an ecumenical seminary, all ministers can gain much from having a segment of their preparation for ministry there. Even if the ecumenical schools had the capacity to absorb a majority of the 55,000 students in American and Canadian seminaries -- and they do not -- they should not want to do so. But leaders on both sides of this educational network should not foreclose the possibility that, sometime in their careers, all ministers of a church should have an educational experience outside that church.

My year in pursuit of a master’s degree in theology at Yale was for me not just a preparation for further academic study, but, rather, an essential rounding out of my education for the Presbyterian ministry. Nine years as president of an ecumenical seminary have not lessened my loyalty to that denomination.

In sum, my word to church leaders is that the strong students whom they send to ecumenical seminaries will come back to them even stronger. Such ministers will enrich and renew their denominations. And they will provide leadership in the struggle to bring the “great church” into the hearts and relationships of their constituents.

When I accepted the presidency of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Fred Stair, Jr., the president of the other Union Seminary, in Virginia, said to me: “You should remember that the whole church needs that school in Manhattan. You can do things educationally that we cannot do, just as we can do what you cannot do. The truth is that we need each other.”


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