“Learned?” “Clergy?”

by Sarah B. Drummond

Before I came to Andover Newton, I served as Campus Minister and Executive Director of University Christian Ministries, the mainline Protestant campus ministry to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Before and after that time, I have been affiliated through different roles at Memorial Church at Harvard University. Those experiences went a long way toward desensitizing me to skepticism about organized religion.

It was not uncommon in higher education settings for critics, ranging from 18-year-olds who thought they knew everything to tenured faculty members who really thought they knew everything, to say right to my face that they didn’t believe in the field to which I have dedicated my life. I had never asked them to believe in it, but who says that sort of thing, really? I mean… really?

In more recent years, I have been faced with a new form of cynicism: those who express negativity about higher education. Could it really be worth the expense? Does it lead to a better life? Don’t college and grad school really only benefit the students who get it, and if so, why does the government help pay for it? Inured as I was to dismissive comments within the academy about the church, I was lodged in the academy when it, for the first time in a long time, faced with questions about whether it should exist. The academy was, I daresay, caught unprepared.

Andover Newton was founded out of belief in the value for society of a learned clergy. Therefore, when it comes to defending its public purpose, Andover Newton now finds itself on the receiving end of a double-whammy. As the self-proclaimed “School of the Church,” Andover Newton has served as a haven for those progressive Christians like me who have become tired of responding to the flip dismissal in the wider culture of faith as a way of life. In short, I like being part of a community where I don’t have to explain why I love the church.

Church? We get church. I do find myself explaining the value of higher education at Andover Newton today, however. If the denominations don’t all require advanced degrees for ordination, how worthwhile could seminary be? If it’s expensive and inconvenient, can’t I just get my theological education from my church, which gives it out for free (for this generation, anyway, when I have an MDiv graduate as a pastor)?

Members of the clergy are authorized religious leaders who tend the fire of the faith traditions around which all of our society warms its hands. But what does it mean for clergy to be “learned”? The congregational way of being church relies heavily on the faith knowledge of its clergy, not to mention its disciples. But in a day where “learned” and “clergy” are both terms in dispute, Andover Newton’s challenge to describe its mission and purpose has gotten a lot more interesting, with a lot less to be taken granted.

Martin, with your life experience as a learned member of the clergy, dedicated to theological education, what does the expression “learned clergy” mean today?

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