Conflicting Priorities

During our recent webinar on Episcopal identity for new administrators and faculty leaders, we explored the four “pillars” we use to explain what makes Episcopal schools unique—worship, spiritual formation, community, and a dedication to social justice. We had an engaging conversation specifically about the role of worship in our schools. As with so many things, there can be tension between two desired goals.

Our Principles of Good Practice for Chapel and Worship in Episcopal Schools frames it this way:

Episcopal schools are called to fulfill two simultaneous commitments: to provide students an authentic experience of Christian worship that is unapologetically and identifiably Anglican; and to welcome, affirm, and support the spiritual development of students of all faiths or no faith at all.

This presents the obvious question: How are we to accomplish that? How do we create communities where “all are welcome” while still honoring the uniquely Christian experience at the heart of an Episcopal school?

Admittedly, it’s a tough commitment to fulfill, but one that a community can accomplish with graceful intentionality. I suggest that it might be helpful to explore two approaches that miss the mark. What can we learn from these less-than-good practices regarding worship?

The first of these approaches would be to assume that worship in a school setting should be identical to worship in an Episcopal church on Sunday. This approach fails to recognize the important distinctions between congregational worship and school worship. For example, school worship is designed for a community that is more religiously diverse than a parish. The vast majority of students attending Episcopal schools are not from the Episcopal tradition, which is completely opposite from Sunday in the pew. Also, attendance at school worship tends to be mandatory. As a result of these distinctions, the tone of worship in a school is different from congregational worship. Liturgical resources that are a wonderful fit in a parish may not be a good fit for the school context. School leaders and church leaders both would be wise to recognize this.

A second problematic approach would be to assume that worship in a school is no different from any other community gathering and must be devoid of elements of the Christian faith. This approach fails to recognize the Anglican tradition from which all of our schools originate. Simply ignoring this in worship will prevent a school from being able to “lean in” fully to the other pillars of Episcopal identity (namely, spiritual formation, community, and a commitment to social justice). Worship, as a pillar of Episcopal identity, complements the other three. We are not setting out to proselytize in school worship. Equally important, we are not setting out to erase all the traditions from which our schools came.

If I know anything to be true, it is that there is not one model of worship that will work for all Episcopal schools. Honest conversation and planning will set a community up for successfully navigating the seemingly competing, but complementary goals.