One of the most vexing questions in an Episcopal school is how to be authentically Episcopal and welcoming of all. This question is especially vexing when it comes to religious pluralism among and within the school’s many constituents: students, parents, faculty, trustees, alumni, and, if your school is associated with a parish or cathedral, parishioners and Episcopal clergy.
Sometime there’s an impulse is to shy away from the “E” word altogether and focus exclusively on values. Sometimes there’s an impulse is to proclaim it even more loudly so as to make the it perfectly clear that ours is a religious school. And there are all kinds of impulses-in-between.
I have been reading Bishop Michael Curry’s latest book, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubled Times. Of course, I was expecting to read about his theology of love. What I wasn’t expecting was insight into to this vexing dilemma.
Curry begins by reminding us that the love of God is a gift to each and every human being. “It is a gift from God, flowing from the very heart of creation. It cannot be claimed by any single religion or philosophy or person.” It is everywhere and always available to us.
But the love articulated by Jesus of Nazareth, he says, is a very particular kind. “It is not an accident that when Jesus teaches about the way of love, he speaks of the kingdom of God as the most spacious reality imaginable” Bishop Curry writes. He directs us to the word agape, the Koine Greek word of the New testament. Agape describes an outward-looking love, what Curry calls “love for the other.” This kind of love, writes Bishop Curry, “creates room and space for others, ‘the other,’ to be.”
And so, Bishop Curry writes, “Our job isn’t to tell anybody how they should work out their relationship with the living God. Our job is to love, and in the case of Christians, to witness to the way of love that came to us from Jesus’s teachings.”
Importantly, he notes, it is in community, in relations with others, that we learn about and practice and have the place and space to engage in this radical love.
Doesn’t this describe an Episcopal school? I think it does. Yet how many times do we somehow position being an Episcopal school and being a radically loving, religiously diverse community as problematic, impossible to achieve, inherently at odds? Based on my own experience and hundreds of conversations with school and church folks, I would say that it’s often our default mode, an assumption we accept and do not question.
But what if we took a page (or two or three or four) from Bishop Curry? What if we started from a deeply held belief—a faith—that our specific and powerful Episcopal school mission is the ground, the agar, the fertile soil that makes the richness of a religiously and spiritually inclusive school possible?
Bishop Curry articulates a Christian theology, at least of the Episcopal kind, that is the foundation for radical welcome of all kinds of folks.
What would this look like in practice? It would take many different shapes. But what they would all share is a clear-eyed understanding that being a deeply committed Episcopal school and serving families of many faiths, and on many different spiritual journeys, is not an either/or choice but a both/and.
Ann Mellow is Associate Director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.