This is the first part of a six-part series about an imaginary journey to an Episcopal seminary where I ask hard questions about Christianity and priesthood. Without twenty-first-century answers, I might have to drop out.
I graduated from seminary fifty-eight years ago in a very different world. I started seminary in 1957, when the church was thriving, the pews were full, new churches were being built, fifty-plus men (no ladies yet) were studying to be priests at my seminary alone, and Pope John Paul XXIII was leading the church in an exciting new direction.
Today, churches are closing, lots of pews are empty, and many young people see the church as irrelevant. The church has forgotten to change, even though the world has changed radically.
Let’s pretend I’m in my thirties and on my way to my first year of seminary. I am excited about the new experience but apprehensive about facing daunting questions such as whether I “believe the Holy Scriptures . . . to be the Word of God” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 526) at my eventual ordination. I know I should say yes, but I also know that saying no is a no-no.
I’ll also be asked whether I will “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ” and “obey [my] bishop” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 526). I’ll probably say yes with my fingers crossed, but I’ll never blindly obey.
One of my first classes is about prayer and prayer life, a subject in which most seminarians feel a void.
I am eager to learn, but it doesn’t take long before I ask the professor, “I know our prayers are directed to God, but where is this God? It’s a huge universe out there.”
I have more questions. What does God look like? Most pictures of him/her/it resemble Santa Claus.
Does God look like a man or a human? I read about some pastor who claimed God was a man without a penis. Really?
Then I ask, “Does God run just the earth or the entire universe?”
The professor replies, “Excellent question. What does the class think?” Then I hear a lot of theological double talk.
Next, I ask, “Does God answer prayers? The reason I ask is because the father of my good friend David had lung cancer. So did my dad. David’s father died. My dad went into remission. Our church had a prayer chain, and we all prayed for both dads daily. The memorial service for David’s father was held at our church, but David and his family have never returned to our church since his dad’s death. How, as a pastor, do I deal with David and his anger?”
The class is dead silent. The professor mutters something about God’s mysterious ways, which, to me, is another way of saying “I have no idea.”
But I still have questions and new ideas, such as, “Do you think that the whole concept of prayer could be changed radically, so that instead of asking NoOneUpThere to heal people, our prayers would instead remind us of what you and I need to do to help the hurting world? Would we have served David and his dad better by helping them develop a twenty-first-century concept of God as a force in a vast universe, visiting regularly, discussing death, and forming a support team to help the family move through the process?”
Yikes! It’s only my first class and I am already in trouble. I know I have too many questions and not enough faith, but I want to learn how best to serve Jesus, my Christ.
My next class is about the Old Testament. I have a ton of questions. I hope you’ll join me.
Do you have any questions you want to ask?