“What is the School of Theology and why does Sewanee have one?”

university-of-the-south-school-of-theology.jpg
Hamilton Hall. Photo courtesy of google images.

Robert MacSwain
Associate Professor of Theology

I came to Sewanee in 2009 to teach theology and am now an associate professor. Over the years I have encountered, both directly and indirectly, various reactions from students and faculty at the College regarding the existence, nature, and purpose of the School of Theology. These reactions have ranged from enthusiasm to disinterest to incomprehension to condescension to what at least feels like hostility. As the University prepares to move the School of Theology back near its original location in the center of campus, I thought it might be helpful to raise the double question of my title, namely: “What is the School of Theology and why does Sewanee have one?”

To begin with, it is important to note that the School of Theology (previously located in St. Luke’s Hall but since 1983 based in Hamilton Hall, the old Sewanee Military Academy out near Quintard and Gorgas) has two components: the Seminary and the Beecken Center. The Episcopal Church has ten seminaries—professional graduate schools of theology—ranging from northern California to southern Tennessee, and also several colleges. Some of those colleges are “historically-affiliated” with the Episcopal Church, such as Kenyon in Ohio, Trinity in Connecticut, and both Hobart and Bard in New York. Sewanee is unusual in that it is still owned by twenty-eight Episcopal dioceses in the Southeast, which gives the University a stronger Episcopal identity than most of the others. Currently Sewanee is the only Episcopal college affiliated with an Episcopal seminary, which of course means that it is also the only Episcopal seminary affiliated with an Episcopal college. Collectively the College and the School of Theology, as well as the School of Letters, form the University of the South.

I’ll come back to the Seminary in a moment, but the School of Theology also consists of the Beecken Center, which used to have the more generic title of “Program Center.” The Beecken Center runs various national and international programs such as Education for Ministry (EfM), the SUMMA debate camp for high school students, Invite Welcome Connect, and so on. When considering the total size and impact of what goes on in Hamilton Hall, it’s important to realize that EfM alone has about 9000 current participants and operates study groups in the USA, Canada, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Botswana. Since its founding in 1975 more than 100,000 people have been involved with EfM in some capacity. This work is invisible to most students and faculty in the College but is an essential aspect of the School of Theology and a major contributor to Sewanee’s global reach and reputation: by far, most people in the world have heard of Sewanee because of EfM.

Back to the Seminary, it’s also important to note that the Seminary itself has two separate degree programs: the academic-year program and the summer Advanced Degree Program (ADP). Unlike the College’s summer school, our ADP serves a different set of students, mostly clergy pursuing higher degrees, and the summer faculty includes visiting professors from Harvard, Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, and other distinguished institutions. In any given year we have about 80 students in each program, for a combined total annual enrollment of around 160.

All of our students are graduate students, working on various master’s degrees (M.A., M.Div., S.T.M.) or the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.). They come from all over the country and from around the world. About 50% male and 50% female, they represent a wide range of ethnic and racial identities, various sexual orientations, a diverse set of educational and professional backgrounds, and ages ranging from 22 to 72. Some arrive directly from college (including Sewanee—three members of T’18 were graduates of the College), others from previous graduate training, and yet others from careers in another field: business, law, education, music, etc. My first semester teaching solo, in Easter 2010, I faced a class with a fifty-year age range including students who were graduates of Princeton University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School. They are a diverse and lively bunch.

The final thing to say about the Seminary, before answering the second half of the question, is that our students—just like students at the College—have chosen Sewanee instead of other alluring options. Among the ten Episcopal seminaries, our keenest competitors are probably Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, inside the Washington Beltway, and the Seminary of the Southwest, in Austin, Texas—both very good schools in interesting urban or suburban settings. But those training to be ordained in the Episcopal Church don’t have to go to an Episcopal seminary, so we also compete directly with bigger research institutions such as Duke Divinity School, Candler School of Theology at Emory, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and so on. A special case is Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, an Episcopal seminary nested within the broader ecumenical context of Yale Divinity School. In regard to recruitment, these are also our “peer institutions,” and believe it or not, we have seminarians turn down offers from Duke and Yale to come study on the Mountain.

So, that’s the School of Theology—both Seminary and Beecken Center, and both academic-year and summer degree programs. This leads to the second half of the title question, namely “…and why does Sewanee have one?” This half can be answered more briefly by saying that Sewanee has a School of Theology for two reasons: (1) it is essential to the mission of the University, and (2) it is essential to the identity of the University. By (1) I simply mean the historical fact that theological education was one of the primary reasons the University was founded 161 years ago, and this continues to be part of Sewanee’s mission. The Sewanee website says: “The bishops who founded the University of the South included theological education as an essential part of their dream for a great university. Only two years after the University of the South opened in 1868, students at Sewanee were reading theology. In 1872, the first priest from Sewanee was ordained. By 1878, the Episcopal Church formally opened a seminary at the University of the South.” (One of the theology graduates in 1897 was Walter Edwin Dakin, the grandfather of Tennessee Williams and the reason Williams left his estate to Sewanee.) The same section of the website, under “University Purpose,” lists both the College and the School of Theology as constituting the University’s contemporary mission.

By (2) I mean something different, namely that without the School of Theology, Sewanee simply would not be a university. When the University was originally founded in 1857, the ambitious plan was to have several graduate professional schools, not just a School of Theology, but a School of Medicine, a School of Law, and so on. And valiant efforts were made. But after the Civil War and the re-launch in 1868, those other schools didn’t make it. To make a long and interesting story short, both the medical school and the law school were closed by 1910. But to be a “university” an institution of higher education must have more than one “college” or “school,” and normally at least one focused on graduate or professional education. Things could have been different, but in fact Sewanee’s only claim to university status from 1910 until at least 2006, when the School of Letters opened, was the School of Theology.

Here’s another way to look at it. Like Emory and SMU, we use the term “school of theology,” but the more generic term for a graduate school of theology affiliated with a university is “divinity school,” while the term “seminary” normally applies to schools without university affiliation. Thus, the Episcopal Church has Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and General Theological Seminary in New York City, while Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Duke, and Vanderbilt have divinity schools. So does Sewanee. The School of Theology is the divinity school of the University of the South, and having a divinity school is essential to both the historical mission and contemporary identity of the University.

Of course, having a College of Arts and Sciences is also essential to both the mission and the identity of the University! My point is that both are essential, so rather than seeing them in oppositional terms, necessarily privileging one over the other, or assuming that the College can only flourish at the expense of the School of Theology, or vice versa, or drawing imaginary Maginot Lines and cordons sanitaires across the University campus, we should rather enthusiastically celebrate both schools and strive fervently for their mutual flourishing. Together, they make Sewanee uniquely what it is: the University of the South. Ecce quam bonum.

2 comments

  1. Someone asked me about Episcopal colleges other than the ones mentioned above. The complete list of colleges currently affiliated in some way with the Episcopal Church is: Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; Clarkson College, Omaha, Nebraska; Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York; Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio; St. Augustine College, Chicago, Illinois; St. Augustine’s University, Raleigh, North Carolina; the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; and Voorhees College, Denmark, South Carolina. And the ten seminaries of the Episcopal Church are: Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut; Bexley Seabury, Chicago, Illinois; Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California; Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, New York City; General Theological Seminary, New York City; Nashotah House, Nashotah, Wisconsin; The School of Theology of the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; the Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas; Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania; and Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia.

Leave a Reply to Paul Holloway Cancel reply