Episcopal Identity: Beyond Chapel and Worship
The Reverend Canon Julian P. Bull
If Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco is right that “the most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence,”1 then Episcopal schools have a huge target market. Yet many prospective applicants (particularly in places like Hollywood, where I work) assume that faith-based schools impose overly rigid values on children rather than slaking their thirst for meaning; or, if the parents want the school to be faith-based, they may question whether ours is the right faith. That marketing challenge may be why many of us seem to downplay our religious affiliation by referring in our mission statements only to a history or tradition of Episcopal affiliation, rather than to a living, dynamic presence.
The real problem with downplaying our Episcopal identity is that it deprives us of our greatest strengths as learning institutions. The charisms of the Anglican-Episcopal religious movement lend themselves perfectly to both the educational challenges of the twenty-first century and to contemporary culture’s hunger for deeper meaning and purpose. Living out those gifts in our schools requires that we extend Episcopal values beyond chapel and religious education to such core institutional practices as the ways in which we structure our academic programs and the ways that we organize ourselves as communities.
To help make this point, I offer here a list of five gifts or values from our Episcopal heritage and their implications for curriculum and organizational development.
I. An ongoing preference for living vision over ideology
In Episcopal schools, we operate from “a scepticism [sic] about formulae and dogma that is fundamentally scepticism about the capacities of the human mind.” Paradoxically, we may find that such humility concerning limited human knowing opens us to ever greater wisdom and understanding, both in traditional academic subject areas and in our life together as a community.
To believe that one already possesses wisdom “is to arrest a process in which God is actively causing you to grow.” To live out such a faith is not to reject tradition, “but to turn the soil of tradition,” to return to “the created spirit…its lost freedom.” 2 We search, we inquire, we explore, we question, precisely in order to honor that spirit within that is ever calling us to grow, to learn, to transcend limited understandings (and all human understandings are limited).
Yet our goal is not a lonely skepticism, but a living, shared vision of the kind that informs all great human achievements. That’s why our gatherings often include liturgy: instead of one of us “having the last word,” we point together ritually towards a broader, ineffable truth.
II. A focus on relationships, between both people and ideas
The Anglican tradition seeks to build shared understanding through “instruments of communion” and “bonds of affection.” Likewise, our constant talk about community in our schools is evidence of a deeper understanding about the cosmos and knowledge: it’s all about connections and relationships.
This emphasis on connections and relationships serves as a counterpoint to the rugged individualism of our culture and distinguishes Episcopal schools in particular from other “college prep” schools.
We need to make sure that we allow time for teachers to plan and map curriculum together, and for students to collaborate in teams. As teachers, administrators, students, and parents build meaningful relationships with one another, they lay the groundwork for grappling in a sophisticated way with the shared complexities that characterize the twenty-first century landscape.
III. A sensitivity to what is problematic
M. Scott Peck recognized that many self-proclaimed “communities” are actually “pseudo-communities” in which the appearance of harmony, peace, and agreement is more important than the pursuit of truth. I find that outsiders who know the Episcopal Church only through news stories about our struggles still admire our willingness to face controversial issues unflinchingly—a perception about our “brand” that we can build on. In our schools, we must not allow the appearance of community to become a false idol that prevents us from addressing the tough questions that will help us become better communities in fact.
Likewise, in our classrooms,
“Teachers may ask questions and students may answer them without either party feeling the least twinge of doubt or puzzlement and with hardly any real thinking taking place, because the process is mechanical…. On the other hand, there are times when inquiry begins because what has been encountered—some aberration, some discrepancy, something that defies being taken for granted—captures our interest and demands our reflection and investigation. If, then, thinking in the classroom is considered desirable, the curriculum cannot present itself as clear and settled, for this paralyzes thought. The curriculum should bring out aspects of the subject matter that are unsettled and problematic in order to capture the laggard attention of the students and to stimulate them to form a community of inquiry.”3
Lesson planning that makes room for that which is “unsettled and problematic” is much more difficult than planning lessons that march predictably through entirely “clear and settled” information; so, too, a school that wishes to become more of a true learning community devotes time to developing this skill.
At the same time, we are also different from schools that value only “project-based” learning or schools that demand that all learning connect to “essential questions.” We recognize that not all of teaching and discussion needs to concern problematic material. Much of community life in our schools involves rituals and routines, and that’s fine. Some of our teaching requires rote learning, and that’s fine, too, as long as there’s enough other material that “defies being taken for granted.” The Anglican approach is always a balanced approach.
IV. An appreciation for the art of dialogue
There will always be a time and place for many modalities of teaching and learning in our classrooms and schools: lecturing, student work-groups, individual research, and many others. Episcopal schools should particularly specialize in and develop the art of dialogue, an approach to teaching and learning that incorporates each of the three previous values.
As Martin Buber commented, dialogue occurs when each of the participants in the classroom or meeting “really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relationship between himself and them.”4 Dialogue occurs when all participants cease merely advocating for their own positions and become truly and deeply open to being influenced by others.
We may think of dialogue as Buber describes it as too philosophical and impractical to implement in our schools, or at least in some subjects, but there has developed a wealth of relevant practical advice through the modern field of learning organizational theory and the work of educators such as Matthew Lipman, founder of the Philosophy for Children program.5 What I am calling “dialogue” here is probably very similar to skills already highlighted in many of our classes and programs, from circle time in kindergarten to discussions in Socratic seminars.
V. A commitment to servant leadership
As its name suggests, the Episcopal Church has bishops; this leadership structure distinguishes it from, for example, the Society of Friends; in turn, Episcopal schools are correspondingly different from Quaker schools, with their strong emphasis on consensus.
In Episcopal schools, “hierarchy” is not a bad word because leadership is held to very high standards of accountability. Our schools seek leaders who appear most capable of developing and articulating good decisions on behalf of the community. Of course, hierarchy can become problematic when it flies in the face of building shared vision, giving voice to divergent viewpoints, and failing to suspend advocacy in order to listen carefully. There’s no question that our schools, and our world, require strong leaders who prevent decision-making from getting bogged down by controversy and obstinacy. Illegitimate hierarchies result when school leaders have poor judgment but throw their weight around anyway. Ineffective hierarchies result when the terror of making a bad decision or fear of making faculty or parents angry leads administrators to avoid controversial decisions altogether.
In Episcopal schools, those without official leadership positions—including virtually all students—are not powerless, but are called to voice their input and concerns civilly to those with official authority, who are then called to listen carefully and respond appropriately as servant leaders.
Everyone in the school should be held accountable, but leaders more so because with authority also comes responsibility to use power wisely. Ideally, leadership training in our schools emphasizes these points.
Together these five values, each derived from and integral to a shared Episcopal heritage, may help our schools live into their calling as self-transcending institutions, or what at Campbell Hall we sometime call communities of inquiry. Such learning, developing, vibrant schools cannot help but be the most profoundly satisfying and effective places for students to learn and for adults to work and volunteer. Building such schools allows us as Episcopal educators to live into our baptismal covenant while simultaneously offering something of real and distinct value to the broad educational market.
Interested in learning more? Join Canon Bull and other presenters at Biennial Conference 2010 for “Developing the Episcopal Identity of Your School Community,” an extended Special Focus Session on Thursday, November 18, 1:30 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
1. Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 113.
2. Excerpts are from Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities
(Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2003), 76-83.
3. Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education
(New York: Cambridge, 2003), 21.
4. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man
(London: Kean Paul, 1947), 19.