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Mission as Theological Education in Africa: 3. A Changing of the Guard in Theological Education for Mainline Denominations

Introduction

Decline in mainline, Protestant denominations in the West is matched by decline in their theological seminaries.  We still live in a day when mainline theological seminaries in the West see themselves as superior to Evangelical theological seminaries in the West (which is demonstrably inaccurate even on agreed criteria of academic strengths).  We also live in a day when seminaries in the West see themselves as far superior to theological education outside the West—which raises questions about the criteria used for ‘superiority’. Even just a cursory look at the numbers, though, shows the need to ask the question, ‘Who is going to carry theological education forward in the 21st century?’  Putting questions about orthodoxy and health aside, the numbers themselves show that churches outside the West, like Evangelical churches in the West, are being put into the position of leadership in theological education and ministerial training in Protestantism.

The Episcopal Church in America and its Seminaries

To make this point, consider the case of the Episcopal Church in America.  It once had a number of theological seminaries that were considered academically strong even if, increasingly, they were an engine for revision of orthodox convictions of the historic Church that has led to the denomination’s decline.  As the denomination rapidly declines, the effect is also seen in the decline of the number of students in seminaries.  One might contrast these numbers to Evangelical seminaries in the West, where student enrollment remains fairly consistent (though there are changes to take note of here as well).  Yet the point here is that mainline denominations, present both in the West and outside the West, have their own story to tell.  Decline in theological education in the West matches decline in membership, but the growth of these denominations outside the West does not match the growth of theological education outside the West for those denominations.  There is something of a real crisis in Africa, for example, where the Anglican Church has been growing very fast but lay education and ministerial training lags well behind this growth.

Consider, then, the statistics for theological seminaries of the Episcopal Church in America.  The statistics provided here are those reported to the accrediting agency, the Association of Theological Schools, for three academic years: 2002-2003, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015.  The numbers given are for the head count (total number of students taking any course) and the full-time equivalency count (total number of students taking enough courses to qualify for full-time status in the academic year).  Along with declining numbers, the reader should notice the low numbers of students, mergers, and even closures of seminaries.

Berkeley Divinity School (operates within Yale Divinity School—no statistics)

Bexley-Hall Seabury-Western Theological Seminary Federation, Inc.:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         -                          -
2013-2014:         48                        34
2014-2015:         23                        18
(consolidating with Chicago Theological Seminary, July 2016)

Church Divinity School of the Pacific:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         136                      93
2013-2014:         79                        64
2014-2015:         58                        47

Episcopal Divinity School:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         101                      70
2013-2014:         72                        60
2014-2015:         46                        46
(ceasing to offer degrees)

General Theological Seminary:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         211                      161
2013-2014:         70                        68
2014-2015:         61                        61

Nashotah House:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         49                        41
2013-2014:         122                      101
2014-2015:         86                        82

Seabury-Western Theological Seminary:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         199                      118
(merged with Bexley Hall in 2013)

Seminary of the Southwest:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         127                      86
2013-2014:         100                     92
2014-2015:         71                        65

Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry [Evangelical]:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         246                      119
2013-2014:         171                      170
2015-2015:         91                        60

University of the South School of Theology:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         220                      165
2013-2014:         143                      153
2014-2015:         104                      105

Virginia Theological Seminary:
YEAR:                  Head Count       Full-Time Equivalency
2002-2003:         249                      219
2013-2014:         245                      218
2014-2015:         164                      153

Conclusion


The story of the decline of a Western mainline denomination like the Episcopal Church in America is told in many chapters, not just in the declining number of members, churches, and students training at its theological seminaries.  Yet one thing that these declining numbers demonstrate is that there is a changing of the guard taking place in theological education.  The problem is that, where the Anglican Church is growing elsewhere in the world, development of theological education is not keeping pace.  The danger would be to try to answer this by setting up theological education in the way it was set up in the West, since these now declining seminaries were major contributors to the denomination’s decline in the first place.  Still, the Anglican Church in Africa is in great need of lay education programmes and ministerial training to support a healthy church on the continent.  This must be a priority in mission efforts for the 21st century.