Explaining Episcopal Identity

Prayer BOok and HymnalThere was a time, not so long ago, when the vast majority of students at my school (St. Mark’s, Southborough, MA) were church-attending Episcopalians. Thus there was really no need to explain, either to families or faculty, what it meant to be an “Episcopal school.” Those times are past. I now teach at a wonderful, vibrant school that is about 12% Episcopal in its families and far less than that in its faculty. (I won’t even venture a guess as to how many of these self-identified “Episcopalians” regularly attend church!)

So it is no surprise that I, like so many of my fellow chaplains, was tasked with coming up with a way to explain our Episcopal Identity to people for whom that is an entirely foreign concept. But how do I, cradle Episcopalian, find my way into this? There are at least three layers of identity that distinguish us, an Episcopal school, from other schools available to our families:

  • St. Mark’s differs from secular schools in that it is religious.
  • St. Mark’s differs from other religious schools in that it is Christian.
  • St. Mark’s differs from other Christian schools in that it is Episcopal.

Within each of these layers of identity are numerous possible distinguishing factors! And yet I limited myself to three to cover the entire distance between “secular” and “Episcopal.” It was not an easy task, and it took a long time to do. First, I had to really know the school, its history, its current reality, and all of its major constituencies; that took a number of years of lived experience. Then I had to engage enough interest to create a collaborative process that would reflect a larger perspective than my own. And finally, I had to slowly introduce, test, tweak and refine the product of our work by introducing it to administration, faculty, staff, trustees, parents, alumni and students, listening carefully to their reflections and reactions (this process is still underway).

It is my hope that all the time spent in gestation will create a more enduring product than if I had taken on this challenge in my first few naive years at St. Mark’s, when I had a seminary understanding of what it means to be Episcopal and little to no understanding of what it means to be St. Mark’s School! The process and its outcome have benefitted from the fact that the Head of School and I have had a relatively long (almost 10 year), highly collaborative overlapping tenure. Like a school’s mission and motto, a school’s stated relationship to its Episcopal identity should be something that outlasts many a strategic direction, many an initiative, many a chaplaincy, many an administration. Being religious, Christian, and Episcopal is not tactical or even strategic! Ideally, it should define a school’s values and rest at or very near a school’s core. It should resonate immediately with every part of a school’s constituency, and yet remain as timeless as scripture in its ability to show a path and set a course for the work of the school. Needless to say, that is an ideal that I approached with considerable trepidation!

The three markers of identity that St. Mark’s has adopted are below. They did, indeed, end up being best expressed as guiding “values” for our school, and each has one or more related practices that are alive and well in our school’s current programming. No doubt they have engendered other practices in the school’s past and will engender and support a variety of new initiatives and practices in the school’s future. Practices come and go; religious values, ideally, do not. A brief description of how they were arrived at is included below each value, and you will see that they come from all three layers of our identity as an Episcopal school.

  1. We value time for spiritual reflection and the intentional teaching of wisdom, compassion, and humility. 
    These are fundamental Christian values, common to all Christian traditions. They are also shared by Islam, Judaism, and many other religions.

  2. We value life in common, believing it is strengthened by honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference. 

    This can be considered distinctively Anglican, as the Anglican Church was formulated as a “compromise” position in sixteenth century England to preserve peace, unity, and commonality of practice if not belief. It is worth noting that despite disagreement, the Anglican Communion has not split apart over the treatment of divorce, women’s ordination, gay ordination, or gay marriage. For better or worse (not everyone is comfortable with it!), accommodation of difference is a central value of Anglican and Episcopal piety.

  3. We value human reason used critically in the pursuit of knowledge.  

    This can also be considered distinctively Episcopalian/Anglican. As a product of Renaissance Humanism, the Anglican tradition holds humanity and human reason in unusually high regard among Christian denominations. This explains why there are so many Anglican and Episcopal schools enthusiastically teaching the secular sciences and critical thinking, and rejecting religious and other indoctrination.

As I have introduced these three values to our various constituencies, I have found it helpful to ask people whether, in their experience of St Mark’s, they have had reason to see these as “lived values” at our school. Do they have any evidence that these values are currently guiding our behavior? To what extent is each of these better described as aspirational? And which of these values is the most difficult, or the easiest, for them to model? The faculty and staff have been intrigued by what they have learned about the Episcopal tradition and how it bears on our work. Much fruitful discussion has resulted, and I hope it always will.

At this point, the values are available in printed form in our Chapel, Admissions Office, Advancement Office, and other outward- and inward-facing departments in the school. Our constituencies can look to them to understand the “why” behind a lot of what we do, and our administration routinely refers to them as it celebrates our past, supports our present, and plans our future programming. No one knows more clearly than I do that, with three levels of “difference,” there were many other values that could have been emphasized instead! Had my school been a different school, had I been a different chaplain, had there been a different Head of School, this could have ended up in a different place. But the process of putting words around something that was for many years simply “assumed” has helped to center us, not only across the current reality of our school, but also across the school’s 150-year history and into its future.

About the Author

Barbara Talcott 200wBarbara Talcott is in her tenth year as Head Chaplain and Religion Department Chair at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA. Before working at St. Mark’s Barbara worked at another Episcopal school for six years, but her first career was in Health Care administration. She holds a BA in Religion from Princeton University, an MBA from Stanford, and a Masters in Theology from Harvard Divinity School. She is canonically resident in New Hampshire.