The Role of Scholarship in the Episcopal Church
It’s been a while since the academic track of the Fellowship Partners Program has been put on hold, but in October of 2021, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) announced a one-year pause in the Academic Track of the Fellowship Partners Program to review program goals and the needs of the Church. The last hold was in 2006, the year that the Ministry Track was introduced.
Looking back on the list of ECF Fellows, it is easy to see that brilliant minds are engaged in academic endeavors and making significant contributions to scholarship that directly affects The Episcopal Church. While that quality is clear, our hope is that this pause in 2022 will help us review the goals of the program – making sure they are clear and attainable and that they impact the Church now and into the future.
To that end, surveys were sent out to all ECF Fellows and program stakeholders. Below, we share our findings from the responses we have received.
Scholarship matters in a changing world and Church
The understanding that scholarship stands to strengthen The Episcopal Church as it responds to the changing contexts of the Church and theological education seems universal. More than three-quarters of the survey respondents see scholars in the role of forming the next generation of clergy, connecting church practices and theology, and casting vision for the Church. While seldom in the spotlight, Church affiliated scholars influence not only leadership and practices of the Church, but they also help create a vision for its future.
The Episcopal Church is a denomination that prides itself on scholarship and the invitation to bring your full self into a worshipping community. That means not only your spiritual identity, but your intellectual identity as well. Several respondents commented on the history of scholarship, noting that “we are an intellectual tradition,” and “our Anglican tradition has always honored learning.” One respondent even went so far as to say that “the Church has always relied on intellectual leadership for theological vision, especially during times of massive change.”
There is no doubt that the Church is standing in a world facing immeasurable changes. Our ability to adapt in the face of those changes will determine our ability to continue to thrive as communities of faith, as well as a larger body of believers. The importance of listening to scholars will become more apparent as we embark on adaptations to traditions and to our attitudes and respect for our historical roots.
Needed: Encouragement and support for scholars
In order to allow scholarship to be an integral piece of the Episcopal identity, the Church needs to find ways to continue to foster and support theological scholarship. This means financial support like ECF’s fellowship, but goes well beyond that. There seems to be a desire to reinforce the intellectual backing of the practices of the church.
One survey respondent stated, “It is quite shocking to me that the Anglican tradition has such a strong scholarly focus that seems to have dissipated in recent years.” In the face of major changes, instead of leaning into the theological scholarship of these individuals, there is a sense that the Church has pulled away and broadened the gap. That individual went on to note, “It is difficult for scholarship to strengthen the Church when the Church doesn’t value scholarship.”
While the values of the Church are more easily defined as on a spectrum, it is easy to feel the lack of support or acknowledgement this individual expressed on behalf of the Church. Another Fellow pointed out, “There are a lot of well-trained and talented academic theologians in the [Episcopal Church]. Too few of them have opportunities or the platform to share their work with the body of Christ.”
This is where ECF has the capacity to step in and re-write the narrative for scholars and the Episcopal Church.
Looking to the future
As we look towards the future of the Church, ECF and the Fellows program, the possibilities are endless. Official reports will offer suggestions for the future of the academic track in the Fellowship Partners program later, but here we are sharing some thoughts as we sit with survey responses and begin our recommendations for the future of the program.
The Fellowship Partners Program is only as strong as our Fellows, so recruitment for the Academic Track will need to continue to be at the forefront of our conversations. Suggestions for recruiting sources include existing institutions, including but not limited to Episcopal seminaries, divinity schools and/or Anglican studies programs, as well as current and past Fellows. Other ideas include seeking Fellows investigating particular topics, as well as continued consideration for diversity in recruitment. There were also recommendations for post-fellowship support.
One fellow said “This is a really important program for the next generation of Episcopal scholars.” We couldn’t agree more.
Sally Benton serves full-time in parish ministry at St. Paul’s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as the Director of Children’s Formation. She has a passion for forming young people and their families and building community. Sally has recently joined the ECF team and is helping to connect ECF Fellows with each other and to offer opportunities to share their work with the broader church.
- Lucinda Mosher and Building Bridges by ECFVP editorial team, Vestry Papers, July 2022
- Liturgy Notes by Lisa G. Fischbeck, an ECF Vital Practices blog, August 15, 2019
- Rethinking Clergy Education by Gary Shilling, Vestry Papers, September 2016