SEX OF PREFERENCE AND GENDER
W 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 also 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 The ological, 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 some 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 real 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 term 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 chalk board, 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 monog-amous relationships just like heterosexual models?” she asked, beginning her presentation . She pointed to a box containing the statement “Heterosexual, monog-amous 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 he 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 offçred—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 sure 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 all 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. (Surprise, surprise.)
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.
A CCEPT1NC THE OPENLY GAY INTO SEMINARIES AND THEN into pulpits is a very 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 he selective, turning more and more gay? For many Catholics the answer is positively mortifying. The priest and novelist Andrew Greeley has been really 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 atmo-
sphere of our seminaries How many heterosexual
seminarians have decided to leave the seminary and
abandon their interest in a presbyterial vocation be-
cause of the presence of significant numbers of gays in
seminaries and among the local clergy? . . . Do homo-
sexual 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 aceeptahle; with Miss, Ms., or Mrs. Jones, hardly.” One resuit from a questionnaire given to Catholic seminarians in 1984 provided added cause for alarm. More than 50 per cent 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, actually 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 opportuni-ty 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.
IF 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 some 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
SIGNIFICANT 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 he emotionally committed to Judaism. We are looking for people who wan t 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 i is a season . . . a time for everything . . .‘ 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 also 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 Gontem-plation.
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 spirit-uality 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.”
T HE NEW EMPHASIS ON SPIRITUALITY IN SEM1NARIES 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—generally 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 so-called 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 historica l 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 anymore; it is here . But should such pluralism 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 frame-work. “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 Catholi c 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 now 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 members 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. Mar y 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 flshbowl 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 atmo-sphere 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
T HIS GENERATION OF SEMINARIANS WILL SOON BE VISITED upon us, regiment after regiment, flying the colors of the faith, denomin-ation, or ideological orientation that they feel best defines them. Or, as religious moles, ministers without portfolio disguised in well-cut suits and line 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 post-modern 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,” spon-sored 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 the General Theological, an Episcopal seminary in New York, for one of the many 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, a t 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.
B UT IN MY VISIT’S 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 of 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, the rejection shown them by the church, and her desire to “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.
The ATLANTIC magazine
Volume 266. No. 6. December 1990 (pgs. 79-88)
The Atlantic Monthly Company,
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