Episcopal schools are justifiably proud of being the church’s growth edge. While parishes and diocese have experienced worthy and necessary if sometimes debilitating debates about liturgy, gender, sexual orientation, peace and justice, and how to keep our toehold in a post-denominational era, our schools have gone forth and multiplied. Being so rousingly prophetic hasn’t always kept people in the pews. Yet our schools have thrived by being graciously and oh-so-subtly Episcopal.
There’s an irony in this saving grace. It’s not lost on anyone in Episcopal education that we’re stewards of institutions that prepare people for leadership. We may trust that they’ll be good leaders in the spirit of what we teach about justice and ethics. Many of our schools are broadening the path to the top by offering financial aid and scholarships to those who otherwise couldn’t afford an Episcopal education.
All that being said, the trend in our church is clear. While our Sunday mornings, once the putative province of the ruling class, are waxing or at least yearning in a more pluralistic direction, our cutting edge is definitely tending upscale.
As at prior conferences, several presenters at last week’s NAES Biennial Conference 2012 in Baltimore addressed this question directly and frankly, including Liz Harlan-Ferlo, upper school chaplain at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. She offered about 30 of us a dynamic, interactive workshop about her high school course, “Religion and Social Justice.” As she does with her students, she first directed us to www.slaveryfootprint.org so we could see how our food and clothing purchases make us complicit in abuses of workers around the world. Students write about their personal philosophies of “engaged ethics” and do research about those have promoted justice in the context of their faith traditions (no Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. papers allowed, she warns; them, we know!).
Groups of students also develop proposals for direct action in the face of examples they’ve witnessed of injustice or inequity. Harlan-Ferlo doesn’t think she’ll persuade all her students to become activists, though she said with a smile that she wouldn’t be remotely upset if a few heard the call. She does want them to be aware and accountable. In a society that sometimes seems to be all about individual rights, she reminds students that God calls us all — and especially those blessed with wealth, comfort, and influence — to lives of service and duty. And that definitely preaches, whether on Sunday morning in church or Thursday afternoon in class.