Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Bishops' Course of Study

The previous post and comments brought to my remembrance a book I read a number of years ago called "Faith and Freedom: A Study of Theological Education and the Episcopal Theological School." This book was written by George Blackman and published in 1967 (Seabury Press). Most of the book is a detailed history of the foundation of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA, which is now known as Episcopal Divinity School because it merged with the Philadelphia Divinity School in the 1970's.

The first chapter, however, details the history of theological education in the earliest days of the Episcopal Church. It is an interesting story, and there are many parallels with the continuing church that came along centuries later.

For at least the first fifteen years after the close of the American Revolution the Episcopal Church was too preoccupied with trying to survive than to worry about training would be clergy. Bishops such as William White were, for the sake of providing a congregation with a minister, willing to make sacrifices in terms of selecting and training candidates.

Like ministers from other traditions, Episcopalian clergy in these days read for orders under the direction of a parson, and using his library. The weakness of this was the same then as perhaps it is today and always will be: the comprehensiveness of the course of reading was limited entirely by the resources of the parson's library and his idiosyncrasies.

As Bishop White believed this to be a shortcoming of his own theological study he made sure that the ordinands he prepared were exposed to a very wide variety of books. But this did not solve all of the problems associated in those days with reading for orders. The other problem was that it was hard for ordinands to make it out to study with their mentors with great frequency. Often they were together just once a month, and when they as much information as possible was jumbled together and crammed down their throats… hardly a systematic way to read and learn theology.

So in 1804 steps were taken to improve the quality of theological education. General Convention proposed that the House of Bishops establish what later came to be called "The Bishops' Course of Study." Bishop White himself is thought to have developed the course, which was basically a reading list that contained sections on apologetics, Scripture, and Church history. Once this course was read, and only then, did the candidate progress to the study of systematic theology ("divinity" as it was then called). Systematics included courses of reading on liturgics, and pastoral theology - including polity and canon law. The list of books in each category is very extensive (and listed in the volume under discussion) and consisted almost entirely of English theologians. Black notes that while the bishop's knew the amount of reading material was too much for most students the purpose of it was to establish an ideal, and perhaps provide some choices of books if a particular one was too difficult.

The notable thing about the list is that even though the books were readily available and still in print none of them were new books. They were what could be described as venerable classics. Many, in fact, had been standard divinity texts for over 50 years. And in the late 1860's General Seminary, Virginia Seminary, and the Episcopal Theological School still required many of these texts to be read. In fact this book list lead to the formation of General Seminary, as the need was seen to have a place where formal instruction in accordance with this curriculum could be given. Eventually, of course, the Bishop's Course of Study was eclipsed by the seminaries it helped create. But for many years it held sway over the Church.

It seems to me that while there are a number of lessons that the continuing church, or any extremely small church or denomination, can be learn from this history. One of the main ones is as follows. With the absence of our own seminaries it would be wise to establish a permanent reading list of classic texts that is meant to supplement a course study taken in a mainline, generic seminary. My diocese has a five book (I think) reading list for men in the discernment process. This is a step in the right direction. But once a person is enrolled in a non-Anglican seminary then what? He should be required to read specific books from a standard book list to supplement his theological education and make up for any gaps. I was given a number of books by my mentor, which was very helpful. I'm sure other clergy do this for men preparing under them as well. This is all good and well, but what there should really be is a comprehensive, standardized diocesan list, as in the early days of the Episcopal Church, that is used by men in seminary as well as those reading for orders. This would help create a standard of learning among the clergy, which would go a long way in building and forming stronger parishes and Christians.


  1. This is a fascinating bit of history, and certainly relevant for the continuing churches. It reminded me of another blog post in which some folks were brainstorming a reading list for Anglican clergy (thinking here less of the original post than of the comment thread that developed). I had saved it as a resource for myself; perhaps it may give you some ideas. If you don't mind sharing, I would be interested to know the five-book reading list that your diocese uses for prospective clergy.

    I cannot help but think that this is a good example of how the divisions among the continuing Anglicans hurt us. This is the kind of initiative that could benefit from a unified effort to develop a standard "curriculum" or reading list, perhaps using an existing resource such as the APCK's seminary (now largely online, I believe) as a foundation on which to build.


  2. I believe the diocesan reading list for aspirants is as follows:

    Christian Proficiency - Thornton
    English Spirituality - Mursell (NB: It used to the Thornton book by the same name)
    The Christian Priest Today - Ramsey
    The Gospel and the Catholic Church - Ramsey
    Christ, the Christian, and the Church - Mascall
    Faith, Focus, and Leadership - Stebinger

    It is possible that these have been changed, but I suspect they are still the same. They are all good books in general, but whether they are any good for a discernment process is, of course, open for debate. Some, such as "Christian Priest Today" make more sense for such a process than others.

    These others ones, along with many more, would be suitable for a reading list that must be completed before graduation from seminary, or for some older man who was given permission to read for orders.

    1. Thank you, Fr. Anderson, much appreciated.


  3. I forgot, they also apparently require:

    "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible" (Good book, but I think Alister McGrath's book "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible" is better)

    The Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Moorman). This might be in lieu of the Thornton and Mursell books.

    Often the reading requirements are altered and the clergy are not alerted to that fact. As I was looking for a book in my library last night I came across the Moorman book and remembered that it is now required reading in APA/DEUS.