The late Marianne Micks, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, who published widely on baptism, writes,
“Most of us are looking for a God who is too small and too tame. . .What does this tell us about the power of baptism? The awesome dynamism of God the Spirit should lead us to ask ourselves: with what kind of expectation and anticipation do we prepare for baptism, either our own, or that of someone we love? Do we really expect to be shaken to our foundations? Do we really expect to change? Are we willing to discover that volcanic inferno beneath everydayness? Most often, I suspect we are not.” (Micks, 42)
Micks writes that all who have been baptized by water and the Holy Spirit are called to ministry “far beyond the walls of any church building. They are Christ’s ambassadors to the world. They are agents of the good.” (Micks, 93)
In my experience, much of the focus of Christian formation in theological education, in general, is too small and too tame. From the perspective of baptismal living, Christian formation focused on denominational literacy or curriculum materials alone is inadequate, as important as these emphases remain.
Rather, Christian formation is a dynamic and embodied process whereby our hearts and minds are turned toward God in the expectation of transformation on every level of our being. Christian formation is about both theory and practice: the integration of academic content, practical skills, and ritual practice, along with a deepening knowledge of the self, intersectional identities, relationships, contexts, and commitment to a just peace.
If we believe that authority for all ministry comes with baptism, then seminaries are called to vigorously advocate for theological education for the priesthood of all believers, along with our support for those with ordained vocations. In this theological framework, the outcomes of transformational Christian formation – unlocking of giftedness, healing of painful pasts, experiencing of community, practicing peace with justice, and serving all creation – are relevant to all who minister: preachers, teachers, workers, parents, children, youth, elders, citizens, activists, and yes, even seminary professors!
A recent study on pastoral imagination funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. suggests that capacities for pastoral leadership are sparked early in life, and take years of daily practice before they come to fruition. (Scharen and Campbell-Reed, 12) As the borders of the church grow more porous, and as institutional resources for ministry decrease, it becomes more necessary to support all Christians in their baptismal living to serve as Christ’s ambassadors to the world.
The baptismal living movement reminds us that each community already has within the gifts of its members its ability to thrive. Through the life-long process of Christian formation we all are called to make connections between baptism and our daily living. “The ‘great transformation’ exists only in germ in each of us. Its fruition lies ahead,” writes Micks. (Micks, 65)
In my experience, part of what theological education gives to the world is a framework within which we practice formation from the perspective of the transformation of whole persons in community. Ironically, the best way we can witness to the importance of theological education for all, and to the value of Christian formation in the church, is to give the world more than churches. Perhaps we need to begin to teach about Christian formation in more expansive terms inclusive of the many ways people live together and work with their neighbors for justice and peace in the world.
Within the Anglican/Episcopal tradition we live out ministries in a sacramental way, through baptism and eucharist, and united through the framework of the Book of Common Prayer. Our tradition teaches that ministry is deeply incarnational. As the Church we commit to each other from birth until death; from the beginnings of this life until the next.
Anglicans are called to live out a spirit of authentic love; that is, live lives which are icons for the love of God in all creation. The world is sacrament, for all that we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch conveys the presence of God.
Interestingly, very little of Jesus’ public ministry took place within traditional religious spaces, except for a few scenes we find in the gospels, none of which turned out very well. Mostly Jesus preached on the road, teaching among the people.
“God came among us in the person of Jesus to start a movement,” said Presiding Bishop Michael Curry this past Easter. “A movement to change the face of the earth. A movement to change us who dwell upon the earth. A movement to change the creation from the nightmare that is often made of it into the dream that God intends for it.” (Curry)
Our Anglican forbearers teach the value of comprehensiveness as a way of holding opposites together in creative tension. Living this type of spirituality requires formation which supports a diversity of approaches and practices. It is apparent that Jesus’ focus was on expanding boundaries to include those most feared, rather than teaching about who should be excluded.
There is an argument which suggests that the church is going downhill because we bring up controversial issues and hang out with the wrong people. But the idea that moderation contributes to growth is reminiscent of a time when the church was much more accepted as part of the dominant culture. Presiding Bishop Curry’s vision of the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement” captures what is attractive today – not conformity, but communities of passion, authenticity, and commitment.
In my own formation, I learned if I first transform my understanding of myself as powerless, then everything changes. I am then empowered to expand my vision of how I am called in the world as a baptized Christian, as a member of the priesthood of all believers, as a priest, and as a theological educator.
Positive and life-giving formation builds agency and moral integrity. All around us we have examples of negative formation, whereby religious identities are fragmented and formed in opposition to others, rather than in the spirit of the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
As a Christian, my ongoing formation at home, church, and seminary have shaped my vision of the reign of God in a palpable way. As a theological educator, not only am I concerned with my own formation, and my students’, but that of the communities we both serve now and in the future.
“We have all failed the dream of God,” writes the late Verna Dozier, who was a life-long Christian educator. “The terribly patient God still waits.” (Dozier, 114) Christian formation is about strengthening hearts and challenging minds. At its most basic, theological education is about creating intentional communities of transformation. This work is yet to be fully realized; there is much ahead to do.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2018, Vol. 30, No. 2, Special Issue – Christian Formation in the Church Today, page 16-17