Several years ago, Kathy and our son Oliver and I drove with Kathy’s sister and brother-in-law from Toledo to their vacation cottage in northern Michigan. Because we wanted to be ecologically responsible, we all went together in one car—some kind of small two-door Chevy. Kathy, Oliver, and I sat in the back seat. Roger, Kathy’s brother-in-law, drove. Betty, Kathy’s sister, sat in the shotgun seat.
Now the seating plan was uneventful, but listen to what we had with us. Each person had a suitcase. They had gone to the market in Toledo and bought groceries for our time up at the lake. So the trunk was full of luggage, and every person in the back seat had a bag of groceries on their lap. Then Betty decided that because it was hot we’d need an extra fan, so as she was the last person to cram herself into the vehicle, she pulled a large, rotating fan on top of her lap. We were, as you can imagine, rather full.
Now the problem driving five people up I-75 for five hours is that, at least two or three times, someone will need to stop and go to the bathroom. So just picture what it meant for us to pull up to a rest stop, loaded like the Joads on their way to California in The Grapes of Wrath, hand all the stuff out of the car, clamber out, go to the washrooms, and then reinsert yourself surgically back into the vehicle. It was neither a pleasant nor a pretty process.
We did this a couple of times, and then the third time (quite near our destination, actually) we got to a sylvan, wooded rest stop and went through our usual car-extrication routine. As I wandered around the rest stop parking lot talking to myself and swearing never to take a trip like this again, I saw a couple who looked at that moment to me like Adam and Eve, the unfallen vision of what we were trying to do. They were a young man and woman in their early 20s, and they spoke German. They wore t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. They drove a very small rented car. In the back seat they had a small pop tent and some sleeping bags. They carried two small daypacks. They were not encumbered with bags from Kroger, American Tourister luggage, or rotating electric fans. They seemed to me, in that moment, the perfect image of freedom. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, I resisted the temptation to join them and light out for the territory. And so I dutifully climbed back into the rolling hell of my own and my family’s making and saved my dreams for another day.
I thought about that young couple when I began to reflect on Jesus’s teaching about the scribes and Pharisees. Although I know that the heavy burdens are a sermon illustration and the real point of the message is hypocrisy, I find, in our school’s present situation, something appealing in Jesus’s language today:
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’—Matthew 23.2-4
Now I’m not talking about Pharasaical hypocrisy here. I’m merely talking about heavy burdens. And as I think about the range of emotions I feel about Seabury and its future, they run from grief (I too am a product of a seminary experience configured very much like this one) to relief (at last we are being forced to try something new). For the past several decades, the autonomous seminaries of the Episcopal Church have been trying to juggle several contemporaneous realities: a shrinking pool of applicants, rising expenses, expanding programmatic expectations, declining resources in the hands of bishops, dioceses, and congregations. We have tried to do business as usual in a rapidly changing environment, and the logic of those changes has finally caught up with us. Whatever else we know, we know this: the church does not need and cannot support us in our current form. The question, of course, is this: what does the church need, and what can it support? I believe that Seabury has a future, but if it is a creative and faithful one it will look less like the overburdened family car full of people and luggage and food and more like the young German couple in their sandals and shorts. We will only survive if we are lighter, leaner, more collaborative. We will only thrive if we see this as a blessing rather than a curse.
It would be injudicious of me to compare the Episcopal Church to scribes and Pharisees, so please don’t call your bishops and tell them I did; but it does seem to me that the institutional church has laid on all of us seminaries burdens which it is not itself willing to help us bear. The church has fewer students and no money with which to support us, and yet it it continues to demand that we behave in certain historical institutional ways—doing the Middler ordinations, administering the GOEs, to name only two of the onerous burdens of running a joint like this. I believe that within the current moment of crisis there lies a great opportunity. We will be different than what we historically have been, but we will also be free. In ceasing to carry around an unsustainable superstructure on our backs, we will be free to adapt and respond to the deep needs of the world and the radical changes even now taking place in the church. We will no longer be what we have been. But the needs of the church and the world call now for a radically new and visionary way of educating women and men and entirefaith communities for what it means to live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Letting go of those burdens has set us free, I believe, to do that.
Of course I realize that there is a human side to all this. Both my parents were leaders in their labor unions, and I know enough about the history of the 20th century to know that when we get Romantic about the big economic picture we lose sight of the consequences for flesh-and-blood human beings. I know that people’s livelihoods and careers are at stake, and I know that many students have relocated here at great personal cost. So please do not mistake my enthusiasm for naïve optimism. I will do everything I can as the leader of this community to make this transition compassionate and just and equitable, and I am committed to making these decisions collaboratively. To do less would be to break faith with the One in whose name we, and the church which created us, gathers.
Let’s remember that Jesus and his companions never went to seminary. These gothic buildings can delude us: the particular form of the way we do this is only a couple of hundred years old. The church’s sense of what it wants in its leaders and how it wants them to be educated is always evolving. But that sense is always radically centered in Jesus and his ministry of hope, liberation, compassion, and even abundance in the midst of what looks like deprivation.
We come now to the Eucharist. In spite of anything else I might have to say about all this, what we have, finally, is this meal together. Whatever all this means for us individually and collectively, the Eucharist tells us two specific and trustworthy things: first, that God has fed, does now feed, and will continue to feed us; second, that we are all in this together. For that nurture and for that community, let us proceed in this common meal, to give thanks. Amen