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The Idea of an Episcopal School

Oregon Episcopal School
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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: Mar 15, 2012, 09:14 AM
Episcopalians, like all Christians, believe that our life is founded on the life of Jesus, and that as a Church we are called to offer the redeeming love of God in Christ to all people. Episcopal schools are a concrete expression of the Church’s care for young people and their families, and of the belief that God calls us to love all God’s children.

Despite a long-standing tradition of church schools in the Anglican Communion, the identity of such schools and the nature of their relationships with the Church continue to be re-examined and redefined. The variety of Episcopal schools—ranging from parish day schools that are a direct outgrowth of church mission, to independent boarding schools with only the loosest connections to a diocese—almost defies attempts to define them. The diverse religious backgrounds and cultures of their student and faculty populations raise constant questions of how closely tied they can and should be to the Church, and all Episcopal schools must struggle with the question of what it means to be “Episcopal.” Particular issues may range from qualifications for board and head, to religion curriculum requirements, to participation in school worship.

What Episcopal schools, like other schools, strive for, teach, believe, emphasize. and cultivate, must always grow out of present needs and look forward to the demands of the future. But Episcopalians have always treasured their particular traditions, and it may be that the principles embodied in the history of the Church in this country and its roots in England might help clarify the mission of a school that calls itself Episcopal. The points that follow are an attempt to provide not an exhaustive system of such principles but the framework for a discussion and clarification.

An Episcopal school is comprehensive and inclusive.

One of the principles of Anglicanism since Queen Elizabeth I imposed her version of diversity on squabbling Church factions is that there is considerable room inside the Church for differences of practice and even differences of belief so long as there is agreement on the fundamentals. In the Church of England today one finds as broad a range of beliefs and practices as one is likely to find in any national Christian church. This comes partly from the fact that the English Church is a national church, identified with the whole nation and the state and therefore expected to see the whole population as under its pastoral care. But even The Episcopal Church has survived differences among its members that would have divided other denominations. Slavery, for example, was a deciding factor in the breakup of several major Protestant denominations into northern and southern branches. No such split occurred in The Episcopal Church.

Our church encourages respect for the other person’s beliefs. An Episcopal school may be expected not to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or national origin, and actively seek out faculty and students of diverse backgrounds and traditions in the belief that they bring something to be valued and respected, and because we would like to be broadly inclusive of the community we serve. An Episcopal school will look for the values that unite people rather than those that divide, and not allow factionalism to undermine the life of the whole.

The unity of an Episcopal school is based on rite and tradition rather than doctrine.

Whereas some communions have their official theologians and others have their confessions, Episcopalians have a common liturgical tradition. In the Elizabethan Settlement that established the Church of England, the uniformity imposed was a uniformity of worship rather than doctrine. This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant, but in a Church where a wide latitude of belief is allowed, it is in worship that we are bound most closely together. It is through our worship that we have had the most influence on the society we live in, as witness the incorporation of Episcopal worship into other denominations and even into secular institutions. If you want to understand what it means to be an Episcopalian, you have to come worship with us.

In an Episcopal school there will likely be no single dogma to which we all subscribe, no list of rules that define who we must be as a community. An Episcopal school ought to be able to point to its own rites and traditions without getting stuck in them, recognizing that these embody the common values of school community. Its rituals may not all derive from The Book of Common Prayer, but every member of the community should be able to join in celebrating the life of the community in some ritual ways (rituals can formal or informal). There is at work here too a sacramental principle which we hold dear: God makes sacred the things of this world as they are offered to God in worship. Students should have the opportunity to experience the best of Episcopal worship if they are to understand the heart of the Church’s teaching.

An Episcopal school values reason as a way to true understanding.

Anglicanism has always put faith and revelation first, like most Protestants. But Anglican theologians have suggested since the 17th century that human reason offers a tool to interpret Scripture and to wrestle with the most difficult spiritual issues. (Again, because there is no human authority to tell us how to think, the responsibility to reason our way to understanding becomes essentially an individual enterprise, in good Protestant fashion, which in turn underlies the idea of respect for individual beliefs.) So, in the Episcopal tradition, learning is important not to find the right answers to be used as weapons against “unbelievers,” but in order to arrive at God’s truth. This suggests that “All truth is God’s truth.” James Russell Lowell once said, “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth, they must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.” We believe that the truth will make us free and that God has given us the freedom to seek truth without fearing where it may lead. This suggests that our understanding of truth may grow and change, that God welcomes questions, and that we may subject all our ideas and beliefs to our critical faculties.

Clearly, then, an Episcopal education is not indoctrination, not about enforcing an unquestioning acceptance of a fore-ordained set of doctrines. An Episcopal education should begin from the premise that we (faculty, students, administrators, staff) are all a community of explorers, that we all need to continue to learn and to grow. It should encourage all students, faculty, and staff to pursue questions wherever they lead, to use their critical faculties, to value the learning and thought we have inherited from the past. It should also, one would think—and here we part company with secular education—refuse to allow students to separate religion and spirituality from the rest of the curriculum, since the Anglican insight is that reason and learning are ultimately intended to serve our exploration of the deepest issues of humankind. An Episcopal education will raise issues of meaning, identity, and ultimate truth that every opportunity in all parts of its program but also will acknowledge the limits of human reason.

An Episcopal school has a concern for the well-being of society.

One of the basic divisions in Protestantism is between those denominations which see the world as hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable, and which, therefore, withdraw from the world, and those which see the hope of redeeming and transforming the world and are therefore involved in it. The Episcopal Church clearly falls into the latter category. Again, the tradition of the Church of England as a state church makes it without question interested in the fate of the society around it.

The Episcopal Church began its life in this country as an established church and has had a hard time, some would argue, admitting that it is not. The positive side of this is that despite its essentially conservative nature, the Church has maintained a commitment to be involved in shaping society, a commitment that has been reinforced especially by the Oxford and Anglo-Catholic reform movements and their interest in the impact of industrialization on society. This belief that the Church exists not to rescue people from society but to help transform society has been especially strong in this country since the 1960s, involving the Church in efforts to help racial minorities and the poor, and to work for peace. So this work involves not just private charity but efforts to influence public policy.

This suggests that an Episcopal school should make a concern for society a part of its program. The school will help students to understand that they do not exist apart from society, that society’s issues are their issues, and that they are called to respond to the needs of others. Students will be encouraged not just to share what they have with others but to understand the issues and complexities of society and to consider what their individual and corporate responsibilities are and to take action.

An Episcopal school is founded on love.

This is not a peculiarly Anglican idea but so fundamental to the Christian view that it can be overlooked. Love for students, for their value as children of God, for their unique gifts, must undergird everything we do. We must act out of love, teach love, model love, and love one another in our community above all else, or all else will be meaningless.

© 1989 by Oregon Episcopal School, Portland, Oregon. Used by permission.

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