Stephen Noll: An Open Letter on Theological Education


Dear Colleagues in the Gospel,

I write you about an issue close to my heart: the sustenance of orthodox Anglican theological education in the USA. As many of you know, I worked for 21 years at Trinity School for Ministry to fulfill its vision to reform and renew the Episcopal Church. Sadly, we failed. Any failure has multiple explanations, but I am convinced that one of them is the failure of conservative bishops to see the urgent need to send ALL orthodox and evangelical students to Trinity. Instead many naively accepted a pluralistic approach to theological formation. Trinity was seen as a nice new dish at the Episcopal smorgasbord, catering to certain renewal people, not the necessary remedy to a radically sick denomination.

(N.B. I am focusing on the seminary I know best, but there is a surely parallel story to be told for Nashotah House and the Reformed Episcopal seminaries. It strikes me that Trinity and the REC seminaries should naturally serve an evangelical Anglican constituency which seeks to be catholic-minded and Nashotah should naturally serve an Anglo-catholic constituency that seeks to be evangelically-minded.)

Two quiz questions will highlight the problem that blunted the kind of impact that Trinity was founded to accomplish. Which bishop refused to present the present Dean of Nashotah House for ordination because he took a job as Director of Library at Trinity? And which bishop refused to send any of his younger postulants to Trinity but sent them rather to his alma mater? Answers: Alex Dickson and Ben Benitez! I suspect Bps. Alex and Ben now regret those decisions, but they exemplify the mindset of conservative leaders during the critical period that Trinity was getting started.

The bold and visionary action taken by the founders of Trinity in the mid-70s was never matched by bold actions in the conservative dioceses to free students to train there. All it would have taken was a bishop, standing committee and commission on ministry in one diocese working cooperatively, and Trinity could have hosted every student who wanted to be formed with an Anglican Evangelical foundation. In the early 80s the Diocese of Pittsburgh opened the door, but within a few years the liberal holdovers on the COM found a way to stanch the flow by imposing a residency requirement, with the bishop’s consent.

In 1996, I helped set up through the AAC an alternative ordination track for ministry refugees (the new bishop of Pittsburgh was to provide the conduit for this track). By that date, the horse had already fled the barn as far as any hope of reforming the church through a flood of renewed clergy. Since that time, in fact, the flow of Trinity grads has been diverted to AMiA and other Christian traditions.

Trinity’s own leaders themselves, myself included, contributed to the problem. We were naïve to think that accreditation (1985) would make us acceptable in the mainstream Episcopal Church. Later on, Trinity’s leaders were also too slow to recognize that AMiA and other Common Cause groups were there coming constituency, thinking that we could woo liberals to give us a few crumbs from their ordination process. But as we all know, contemporary liberals are anything but liberal. Such a hope is surely now a vain hope.

The point of these recollections is to warn that the same failure of vision may be happening today. In my occasional visits to conservative gatherings in the States, I hear people saying: “We’ve sent student X to Gordon Conwell or to Beeson or Wycliffe in Oxford.” Or “We’ve set up our own fast-track training program.” And I have asked these colleagues: “What about Trinity?” “Oh yes,” they reply, “we are willing for students to train at Trinity, but”¦”

“Yes, but”¦” is not enough. Given the fragmented condition of conservative Anglicanism in North America, such decisions are understandable. But in my opinion, as a long-term solution to building a strong and unified Anglican church, they are inadequate and ominous. Say what you may about alternative models of theological education, a good seminary (or two or three) will be vital to the growth and long-term success of orthodox Anglicanism on that continent.

I say “that continent” because I live now in Africa and oversee the flagship theological centre of the Anglican Church of Uganda. The Church of Uganda recently identified an acute clergy shortage impending and has responded by increasing the numbers attending our “Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology” (we just doubled our intake). The church in Rwanda has likewise recognized the need for a theological college, as have other Provinces. So the need and call for strong theological colleges call is not just a North American phenomenon.

So what can be done? I think a couple simple decisions and declarations could clarify matters.

The Boards of Trinity and Nashotah House should announce that their primary mission is to serve the Network and Common Cause churches and that they will no longer receive students sponsored from revisionist dioceses (not a very costly decision since they won’t send students anyway).
The Network and Common Cause dioceses and churches should commit themselves to require all candidates for ministry to get their degrees from Trinity or Nashotah or a REC seminary, or at least to attend for one year to instill in them a common Anglican ethos.

As bishops and leaders in Network and Common Cause churches, you have great influence in these matters. Our movement has made a tremendous investment in these seminaries, and should not squander it. I have real doubts whether these institutions can survive without strong support from the churches they were birthed to serve. These seminaries in turn must focus themselves on building up the movement. If these things happen, there is a real chance that orthodox Anglicanism can emerge as a real church like the Presbyterian Church in America (note, with its Covenant Seminary) and not just a welter of “continuing” factions. If it doesn’t, I think we are sowing the whirlwind.

Thank you for listening.

Cordially in Christ,

The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll

Vice Chancellor
Uganda Christian University

[ed note: This was posted on Stand Firm a week ago and received 115 comments at last count.]


Posted in Seminary / Theological Education, Theology

One comment on “Stephen Noll: An Open Letter on Theological Education

  1. orthodoxwill says:

    When I first began to hear God’s call to ordained ministry I was working within five miles of the Episcopal Seminary in Virginia. +Bill Skilton (SC had graciously placed me under their care) insisted I go to Trinity. No matter how I tried to reason with him (I needed to work in Washington, my family was rooted in Virginia, etc.) he insisted I make the five hour commute to TESM. What a blessing that was.

    Having been on the faculty of some of the best business schools in the country, I know something about good schools. Trinity is an EXCELLENT school (an evaluation supported by its most recent accreditation review by the Association of Theological Schools): its faculty is extraordinary, its infrastructure is first-rate and its leadership is outstanding. The fact that the seminary is in poverty-stricken Ambridge is a major blessing to both the school and the community.

    Over the years, the faculty has included such luminaries as Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Alan Ross and Gavin McGrath. Current professors include Rod Whitacre, Grant LeMarquand and rising stars such as Justyn Terry and Leander Harding. Recent OT professors studied under none other than Tremper Longman III. That the school has been blessed with the leadership of Paul Zahl, a renowned theologian with an evangelical heart, gives further proof of the school’s excellence.

    If any Bishop has questions about the academic rigor of TESM, he only need look at the collective GOE scores of the senior class of ‘06 (collectively ranking TESM #1 of all Episcopal seminaries). If such a ranking causes orthodox Anglicans to have concerns, fear not. A brief examination of academic requirements at Trinity will demonstrate that its graduates have the most biblically grounded education of all Episcopal seminaries.

    I fell in love with the student body of Trinity. Although few share my personality type and even fewer share my 1928 BCP form of Anglicanism, all shared a profound love of God. All are on fire to proclaim the sovereignty of Christ. To my surprise, none foam at the mouth and writhe on the ground speaking in tongues. They are mature men and women growing to a mature trust in God.

    Sacrificing the time and money to go to seminary is burdensome. However, I encourage everyone who senses a call on their life to prayerfully discern that call with their Christian community and their family. There are few towns as depressing as Ambridge, but if you have a call to seminary, I urge to consider Trinity as your seminary home. You won’t be disappointed.

    And if you are bishop like +Bill Skilton, God bless you for sending your people to TESM.

    In Christ alone,
    Will Wilson (class of ’07)