This was originally presented in a series over the space of several months and contained a great deal of repetition. I first published it in its entirety. I have now attempted to out the repetition. With thanks, Fr. Anthony
In the history of the Orthodox Church, seminaries as we know them today are a relatively recent invention. In fact, nothing like modern seminaries existed anywhere before the sixteenth century.
In the early days of the Church it was not unusual for people to be simply chosen out of the community for whatever ministry it was felt they should exercise. St. Ambrose of Milan (Fourth Century) was not even baptized when chosen by acclamation to be Bishop of the city. The lives of the saints are full of stories of how men tried to avoid ordination, St. John Chrysostom being a very good example, fleeing to the hilly wilderness around Antioch in order to avoid being made a priest. We still have a relic of those days in our service of ordination, a deacon who is to be ordained priest is brought to the altar by a deacon and handed over to two priests who conduct him around the altar. Originally this was to stop him running away!
In such a world there was no need for anything like a seminary. However, that does not mean that there was no education. St. John Chrysostom had the very best education of his day. Above all he was extremely well trained in Rhetoric, the highest of the ancient educational disciplines. This training was seen as fitting some for the law courts, but others for preaching. St. John also studied theology with Diodore of Tarsus. Ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386, St. John became an important preacher in Antioch in the days when it was usually bishops who were expected to preach. St. John was not made a bishop until he became Patriarch of Constantinople in 398. His abilities as a preacher earned him the nickname of Chrysostom, the “Golden-Mouthed”.
If a man or woman had a sense of personal vocation in the first centuries of the church, then it was to the monastic life, which did not necessarily entail ordination for any but the very few priests needed in the great monasteries of the ancient world. The monasteries were primarily places of prayer, but from an early stage they often included men of learning who taught others. It became normal to choose bishops from among the monks, not only because of their spiritual lives, but also because they were classically educated men who had continued into a deep and prayerful study of the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers before them. However, even as late as the middle of the ninth century, it was possible for an Imperial Secretary, a scholar and statesman to be elected Patriarch of Constantinople while still a layman, that was St. Photius the Great (c. 810- c.895).
While the civil service of imperial Byzantium could still call on highly educated laymen to serve the church and the state, in much of Western Europe of the so-called dark ages, learning and scholarship were largely only found in monasteries. An ordinary parish priest needed at least sufficient literacy to read the services. Such a priest would be assisted by other clerics and might invite a boy who showed promise to become one and start picking up how to do the services. Such a boy was very often the priest’s son, but in the west this became increasingly difficult as celibacy was made compulsory by the end of the 12th Century. Even in the east however, there was no guarantee that there would be a job for a boy who had learned the art of priesthood from his father. The bishop might appoint somebody else to succeed the father, or the father might die before the son was old enough for ordination.
So what was our promising young man who felt that being a priest was preferable to being a peasant going to do in order to find a job? Here I will be speaking mostly of the medieval west, because we have more knowledge of specific cases. The most important thing that our young clerk had to do was to find a patron. Landowners, who might be lay noblemen or monasteries, often had the right to present a candidate for a benefice (i.e., a position for an ordained person that carried an income), to the bishop for ordination (if not already ordained), or appointment. The bishop, or his deputy, would examine the candidate, and if they were of the right age and had sufficient education, ordain him. Eventually it was necessary to be able to prove to a bishop that one had an appointment to go to, a ‘title’ as it was called. Nobody could be ordained ‘absolutely’ (that is, on the off-chance that they might find a job). This was a reminder that ordination is to the service of a particular community and not just the fulfillment of a personal ambition.
As time passed, those who decided to make a clerical career could make themselves more attractive propositions for important churches by acquiring further education. The early universities started as settlements of scholars from religious orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans, but by the fourteenth century, there were an increasing number of places in the universities for clerical scholars who were not monks or friars. William of Wykeham, born of a poor family in the south of England, rose to become Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England (more or less the Prime Minister). He also became immensely rich and founded a college at Oxford (in 1379, but still known as New College) and a school in Winchester to supply it with poor scholars.
Others rose through the cathedrals. A boy with a good voice might escape poverty by becoming a chorister. As his voice deepened (much later then than now), he would undertake other tasks and perhaps be ordained as a Reader or Acolyte. He might well return to singing when his voice matured but he might also choose to stay unmarried and accept ordination to a post in the cathedral or elsewhere. Such men were well educated in the cathedral schools, and provided a pool of clerics to fill higher posts in Church and state. The same was true in Constantinople as we can see from the numerous pictures of young men without beards who were the singers and readers in great churches like Hagia Sophia.
This system produced many able and well educated clergy for the cathedrals, the city churches and the growing universities, but many parish clergy had only the absolute minimum of education to allow them to carry out the services and hear confessions, they would preach only rarely. In Greece and Russia it became normal for parishes to choose a suitable man and send him to the bishop for ordination. If he was suitable, he was ordained and then served 40 Liturgies under supervision before being allowed to go back to his village church.
The weaknesses of the system became apparent in the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Eventually the churches in Reformed and Lutheran countries came to rely upon a largely university educated clergy, although the Church of England, for example, still had many clergy with little formal education, and therefore little hope of a good appointment. The great Roman Catholic reforming Council of Trent (1545-63) decreed the setting up of seminaries in every Roman Catholic diocese. This did not of course, happen immediately, and most of these early seminaries were what we would call high schools. Many of these schools were enlargements of the old cathedral schools, and concentrated on teaching the arts and sciences, while also giving more spiritual formation to the boys who attended them. The discipline tended to be strict and the schools were often isolated from wider society.
When they were about 18, the boys would move on to study Philosophy and then Theology for six or seven years. They would then be old enough (23) to be ordained deacon, and priest a year later. The major seminary where philosophy and theology were taught might be in another town, and at the very least in another building, and only a minority of the boys moved on to the major seminary.
The Roman Catholic seminary system enormously improved the educational standards of the non-monastic clergy as a whole, but left them at an overall lower level than the highly trained monastic orders and the new orders such as the Jesuits. The high fliers all became monks or joined the new orders, while the parish clergy, the vast majority of Roman Catholic priests, were trained to be respectable, prayerful and dull.
The advantages of having a more educated clergy were not lost in early modern Ukraine. The progress of the Counter-Reformation in Poland left the great majority of the Orthodox clergy at a painful disadvantage, which is why many were inveigled into the Union of Berestya in 1598. Luckily it soon became possible to provide a counterbalance in the shape of the famous Kyiv Academy from 1632, and which became a major tool of the reforming program of St. Petro Mohyla. The Academy deliberately adopted the ideas of the Roman Catholics, and trained boys in classical languages, arts and the sciences, and only at a later date, in theology. In spite of the wide curriculum, the academy became vitally important in raising the standard of the education of the clergy, thus helping to reestablish an Orthodoxy in Ukraine that could give an intellectual account of itself.
The Kyiv Academy’s influence spread northwards, especially with the modernizing program of Tsar Peter I. Reforming bishops such as Stefan (Yavorsky), Feofan (Prokopovich) and St. Dmitri (Tuptalo) of Rostov were Kyiv trained Ukrainians who began to revolutionize clergy education throughout the Russian Empire.
Seminaries in the Russian Empire were very similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church. They were schools that might lead their pupils to ordination. Unfortunately, they were handicapped by the tendency for all parish clergy to come from the married clergy families. The sons of priests and deacons virtually had to go to the seminary where discipline was often brutal, and spiritual formation largely absent. The Great Reforms of the nineteenth century did provide some improvement, most especially in the theological academies in Kyiv, Kazan, Moscow and St Petersburg, but very often the seminaries were hotbeds of sedition, as we can see from the education history of Josef Stalin!
By the mid-nineteenth century, the weaknesses of relying on the ancient universities were becoming obvious to many in the Church of England. So colleges were founded to give some priestly formation. The two major weaknesses in this system were the shortness of the course (two or three years), and the fact that those who already had a theology degree had been taught the subject in a very academic and detached way. As a result, the students acquired only a smattering of theology which they did not always see as being relevant to their future ministries.
Nowadays Anglican seminaries are experimenting with part-time training, and a mixture of residential and nonresidential training. Similarly, Roman Catholic seminaries have broken away from their old rural isolation, forged links with secular universities, and encouraged more professional training in parish and other placements.
There has been a huge revival of seminaries in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus; they are gaining state validation once more and they have numerous students, but are often critically short of well-trained staff. An interesting development in Moscow has been the St Tikhon’s Theological Institute. This very large and well staffed institution has mainly concentrated on lay training in Theology and related subjects. However, many of their formerly part-time students have been ordained on the strength of this training. These are often older men who have had another career and are in many cases proving to be excellent, educated and spiritual priests.
All in all then, the modern seminary scene is very varied. The old isolated and inward-looking approach, that also characterized many Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic seminaries in the USA has disappeared and there is a far greater willingness to be flexible in patterns of training, such as those provided by St Sophia Seminary at South Bound Brook. None of this, however, answers the question as to what a seminary should or could be doing now.
It is perfectly possible to acquire knowledge of theology, even of Orthodox theology, without going to a seminary. The well-known St Stephen’s course of the Antiochian Metropolia is a good example of a non-seminary based theology course. There are also universities and institutes scattered around the world that teach Orthodox Theology to men and women who are not seminarians. So if the seminary were to exist simply to provide yet another theology course, it is difficult to see why this might be considered necessary. The problem is that theology can easily become just another academic subject. If Evagrius of Ponticus was right and the true theologian is one who prays truly, then theology cannot just be the same as other academic subjects, it must be taught and studied with conviction as well as scholarly rigor.
Alumni of seminaries often emphasize how much theology they had learned by talking to each other. This is not a negative judgment upon the faculty; who also often join in the “out of school” discussions. The fact is that lectures can only go so far, discussion in smaller or larger groups based on informed reading is the way that most adults learn, and people over 18 are adults. My lectures to the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge have been circulated widely on tapes, but recordings cannot supply the informal talks which the original audience had with each other and with me then. For those who were not there, only a part of the total experience is accessible.
As those who have left home to go to college and/or seminary will know, one of the most important features of residential higher education is the chance to spark off one another. Another vital part of that experience is going to be access to library facilities. How do you read round a topic if you cannot afford the books or they are out of print, and you cannot reach a specialist theological library? Correspondence courses give sections from major works, but this is no substitute to reading the whole book. It is perfectly possible to compile passages from the books of the late Fr John Meyendorff, but that is not the same as following the whole of his argument through one or more of his books.
I have mentioned the “mixed economy” of residential and nonresidential education. One way to do this is to have short periods of residence, weekends for example, and perhaps a longer summer school. Another is to follow such part-time or even correspondence courses for a year or more, and then have an intensive year’s residence. In such a way, the expense and disruption entailed, most especially by those already married and with children, may be minimized.
Of course, all this begs the question, why study theology? All we need in the parishes is a priest who can serve the Divine Liturgy, and perhaps vespers and matins, hear confessions and preach short sermons. What does he need theology for?
Even short sermons need to be food for the people of God, and hearing confessions entails giving advice. The theology that is needed for these is not a set of cut and dried academic answers but a conscious faith that can communicate God to other people. In discussion and writing we learn to communicate, in prayer we grow in faith, and in deepening our knowledge of scripture and tradition we grow in knowledge of God that we may then communicate to others. The modern world values education, so much so that you will see many advertisements for colleges on television. The numbers of people who continue their education beyond high school grow ever greater; why should these people be expected to be content with priests who cannot even begin to talk to them on the same level?
… So a seminary may provide the place for growth in a theologically informed faith, but does it have anything to do with faith itself? While it is quite possible to find people studying theology in Universities who have no religious belief, a seminary is usually a place where the students hope to serve the church, perhaps as clergy, but also perhaps as educated lay people. Consequently they are people who profess a Christian faith, usually that of the seminary itself. Thus an Orthodox seminary will largely have Orthodox students, while an Episcopa- lian or Lutheran one, will have Episcopalian or Lutheran students. Some faculty and students may be from other churches, for reasons of experience and variety, but all such exceptions will still be expected to profess the Christian faith. This also means that these institutions will normally have the expectation that faculty and students will regularly, often daily, pray and worship together.
Daily services in Orthodox churches outside of Orthodox countries and monasteries are very rare indeed. The opportunity and experience of praying together frequently can help to build up the habits of prayer and worship that must lie at the heart of any ministry, of the clergy or of the laity. It may be impos- sible in the parish, but the seminary experience may encourage a discipline that forms faithful servants of God for His people.
The lack of frequent services, let alone daily ones, in so many of our parishes, is only one aspect of why it is important for a candidate for ordination to have a wider experience than simply the parish that has encouraged and sponsored him, important though that is. As Kipling wrote: “What do they know of England, who only En- gland know?” A priest may stay in the same parish for many years; his people may reside there even longer; but all of them need some conscious experience of the wider world of the Orthodox Church, even if it is just going to a neighboring church of a different jurisdiction for a mission service or Presanctified Liturgy. Modern residential seminaries often send students to other churches on a Sunday so as to gain a wider experience. The parish can be a good thing, but it can also be parochial in the bad sense….
… In some ways it is ironic that I should argue for residential seminary education. I have always noticed in seminarians a neurotic tendency that may be summed up in the words: “They’re not going to ordain me!” This attitude was present in my own seminary education and amongst the students I have taught, and I was always doing my best to calm people and let them see that growing as people was more important than whether or not they would be ordained. I began to feel that there had to be better ways of doing it, perhaps part-time, perhaps by having residences connected to good University theology departments.
Nearly 30 years of ministry and 14 years of seminary teaching have convinced me that for all the disadvantages, the advantages of residential seminaries are greater. It would be possible to envisage what I called a “mixed economy” of residence and nonresidence; I do not believe that seminaries should return to the overly strict and highly isolating discipline that often characterized them in the past. I do not want to see ex-seminarians forming themselves into clerical clubs that exclude not only the laity but even those clergy who had no seminary education or went to the ‘wrong’ seminary. I do want to see candidates for the ministry of the Orthodox Church, lay or ordained, formed in an intelligent faith that can give an account of itself. I also want to see them develop spiritually and have habits of prayer that support themselves and inspire others. I want to see them be broad enough in their outlook to be able to work across jurisdictional boundaries whilst treasuring ethnic traditions, so that we can begin to build up the rich and multifaceted single Orthodox Church that we all say we want in America. Yes, I think that there still is a role for seminaries, that there still is a role for St. Sophia’s seminary, and that such institutions are worthy of the continued generous support of Orthodox Christians.