Monday, January 4, 2010

Radner on academic decline in the Episcopal Church

Ephraim Radner has written some thoughts on the future of Anglicanism... and in particular of the U.S. Episcopal Church... in response to the recent Anglican Covenant document. The commentary can be summed up in his remark that, "the Episcopal Church, as it has been known through the past two centuries, is no more, in any substantive sense."

Below are his comments on the situation of Episcopal seminaries and theological work. They are quite harsh, as is typical of the rest of the piece and Radner's prognoses more generally. Other than the problems at Seabury-Western, I don't know enough to confirm or dispute anything that he says here. While it would be easy to dismiss his comments about intellectual laziness amongst pastors and professors (especially so because he makes these accusations in such unspecified terms), I think that they're worth reading as a caution and at least as a challenge- warranted or not- to the possibility of a damaging status quo.

I have also wondered about the future of the Anglican Theological Review, given the institutional woes of the Episcopal Church. Radner doesn't discuss ATR in particular. Perhaps my concern is misplaced; I think I associate ATR with Seabury-Western because of Ellen Wondra's editorial leadership, but I'm not sure to what extent the journal is tied to the seminary. It seems to maintain a list of supporting institutions.

If anyone has any comments on Radner's thoughts or better knowledge of certain seminaries or publications, please share them. I'd also be curious to hear of readers' reactions to his accusations of intellectual laziness. My initial thoughts are that 1) whether it's true or not, Radner needs to put himself out there and get specific if he's really interested in the Church's edification rather than making blanket accusations, and 2) Young scholars should not take this as a license to dismiss those with whom Radner has a problem: lazy or not, they have probably forgotten more than today's newly minted PhD's and MDiv's know. That said, I'm not opposed to Radner being a curmudgeon about all this if it needs to be said. There's no need to get sentimental about problems that should be addressed.

Here is the essay. Below is the section that I'm interested in:

It is a bellwether of this set of dynamics that several of our seminaries have faced or will soon face their own inability to continue in existence. The demise of Seabury-Western, the selling off of the Episcopal Divinity School’s real estate assets, the well-known financial travails of Church Divinity School of the Pacific and General Seminary, not to mention the long-standing challenges of the Seminary of the Southwest – all this suggests not just that theological education in TEC needs a more rational institutional basis (something argued for some time), but that the “institution” is incapable of sustaining the theological education of its ministers, period. This incapacity, it needs to be said, threatens more conservative as well as liberal seminaries.

On the latter front, and from my own particular experience as well as from an admittedly more subjective perspective, I would note that Episcopalian ministers and scholars generally have received some of the best-resourced educations within the Christian churches; in their ranks are some of the most lively minds and engaging personalities. (Oh, how I wish we could better invigorate and sustain one another!) But they remain among the most intellectually lazy Christians I know, most of whom stopped reading rigorously years ago, prefer arguments based on prejudice, and have contributed virtually nothing to the Anglican and larger Christian theological forum for decades now. There are exceptions, of course, some of them wonderful; but the problem frankly colors the leadership across the board, from the top down and the bottom up, from Left to Right, Liberal to Conservative. The Anglican intellectual tradition that is embodied by and that has derived from TEC is bankrupt, long deflated in comparison with even recent witness from other parts of the Communion.

The goodbyes here are hardly debatable as far as I can see, and the fact that they are shared, to some extent, by several other Christian denominations hardly mitigates the farewell’s stinging force.


  1. Evan,

    What do you mean by "get specific"? Do you wish Radner to give a list of names of people he thinks are lazy, or did you have something else in mind?

    I attend and am involved in an Episcopal Church in New Haven, and I have been hesitant to join because of the some of the things Radner mentions. YDS also has Berkeley Divinity School, of which I'm not a part, but I know many in it. Any comparison of them with other seminarians would be unhelpful, however, given the narrow scope of the comparison.

    I do think, certainly where I'm at, many people do not have the stomach or the moral courage, simply as persons or as Christians, to speak to the pressing concerns the church faces in matters of unbelief, decline, and, especially, sexual morality. Our generation, in general (e.g. see Christian Smith's work on us), is morally pathetic - I don't see resurgence coming from us anytime soon, certainly not in the Episcopal Church, if Radner is right and if New Haven's Episcopalians are indicative of trends. But then I'm a curmedgion born out of season.

    Academics (in this case, theologians) it seems, tend not to give adequate attention to the institional and social structures necessary for the preservation, perpetuation, and inculcation of beliefs and ways of life. What Radner describes looks inevitable to someone like me, who is entering the Episcopal Church from the outside.

  2. I suppose I wasn't all that specific about "getting specific"! Actually, my thought was that if Radner is going to offer such a heavy condemnation, he should be prepared to name names... yet that doesn't seem quite fair, either, and probably unedifying, which is why I don't actually say he should do so. I do think, though, that his criticism is awfully strongly worded for a piece that doesn't offer much in the way of constructive response.

    I think your comments on moral courage get to a lot of the problem as well, as do your observations about academics not being concerned with structural matters. This is why I try to bring up institutional matters, library-related issues, publication issues, etc. on this blog. If we as academics are oblivious to the mechanics of the environment in which we work, we aren't going to be able to work very well.

    It's also why I've formed an interest in canon law, and why I tend to approach ecclesiology "from above" rather than "from below"... not because I'm interested in marginalizing certain voices, but because there is not enough attention in theology to careful work on structural matters. Anyone can write a creative manifesto or imagine visionary possibilities for the Church, and people should certainly be doing that. I hope I do some of that. But that alone does not sustain the vitality of the community of faith.

  3. Evan,

    I guess I thought Radner's tone was admirable; I could easily imagine a vitriolic, uncharitable version of his article - I can't easily imagine a more charitable version that communicates the same (from his view) truths.

    Regarding structural matters - yes, I appreciate your blog for this reason, among others. My friend in Heidelberg just mentioned his surprise at how indifferent one of his professors was to his questions about "Islamification" and the major birth-rate problems in Germany (and Western Europe in general). He said she seemed surprised he thought it relevant, and herself had a dismissive attitude towards the whole thing. This is an excellent example of indifference to structural and institutional matters, as even a moron can see some of the huge economic and social consequences of Western European demographic trends. Clearly she was not a moron, just an academic.

    Actually, I think we can still "work well," if by that one means function well qua academics; but that is the problem, in my view. This kind of indifference works (can function) on a single generational level, but it's institutionally unsustainable.

    Liberals seem rarely to have understood this, and most theologians in general don't either, which is why even relatively conservative folk freak out when professors are fired, suspended, etc. I am usually ambivalent about such things (e.g. Enns at Westminster), but I, for some reason (given my age, it's probably bizarre), can easily sympathize with the administrative perspective of needing to preserve confessional/institutional identity and fidelity to one's primary constituency, which is not, as academic theologians seem to think (academics in general, as Abbott notes), themselves.

    This gets to what I see as the insufficiently addressed question of the compatibility of Christians who are intellectuals working in Christian educational institutions.

    The history of liberalism in theological institutions is so obvious in at least one of its lessons (viz. that schools do not, generally speaking, reverse liberalizing trends) that it shocks me that groups like the Episcopalians (taken as a whole) seem not to grasp them. The lessons are not intrinsically partisan, in my view; everyone can see what happens, regardless of whether one thinks its good or bad.

    The almost equally obvious corollary in church life (shown clearly in the work of Stark, et al - regardless of what one thinks of their theories) is that liberalizing leads to decline in membership and participation. Unless one thinks this decline is not only inherently undetermined as a theological condition but also actually a good thing, it should raise serious questions directed at ecclesial repentance and reform.

  4. This essay was by all accounts, among the harshest I've read of Radner's. Having read his theological work, he certainly does not dismiss "liberals" broadly speaking. He even goes so far as to imply that practicing gay couples can show the "Form" of Christ; and this from a staunch Traditionalist in Holy Matrimony!

    I couldn't agree with him more though, as my recent post, which you were overly gracious in linking, sort of poked at. There are a great number of world class Anglican scholars, but almost all have been sucked out of the American expression(s) of Anglicanism.

    I know a couple Scotist scholars that are pretty solid, as far as scholars still very much indebted to American analytics go; and as far as I can tell William Sachs at Virginia has a stellar mind, but in general - keeping in mind my incredibly basic knowledge - TEC doesn't have a scholar's mind anymore.

    I have a friend, a fellow blog contributer who's doing an MA in OT at Luther Seminary, who had a class on Anglicanism with some local candidates for ordination that were attending United Seminary who thought the rather light class was "much more academic" than the stuff they were doing there. Which, I know, is not an Anglican school, but that's sort of the point isn't it?

    Anyway, with this little comment box I'm not sure if I'm rambling or not. My main point is that I agree with Radner inasmuch as I know what's going on.