“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.”
~ Principles of Good Practice for chapel and Worship in Episcopal Schools, NAES
Dan Heishman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), says that Episcopal schools are very good about saying what we are not.
We are not evangelical Christian schools.
We are not Roman Catholic schools.
We do not proselytize nor do we engage in religious or other forms of indoctrination.
Rather, we teach critical and independent thinking, and we value human reason. We believe that doubt and questioning are essential to the development of the mind. We practice “an open and genuine hospitality that welcomes many voices and perspectives,” and we “affirm our differences as sources of strength that build up our common life, deepen our common humanity, and enhance the intellectual, social, spiritual and moral development of all students” (NAES, “Principles of Good Practice for Equity and Justice in Episcopal Schools”).
Furthermore, Episcopal schools were created to be “intentionally pluralistic” communities:
“Episcopal schools have been established not solely as communities for Christians, like a parish church, but as ecumenical and diverse ministries of educational and human formation for people of all faiths and backgrounds. Episcopal schools are populated by a rich variety of human beings, from increasingly diverse religious, cultural and economic backgrounds. In fact, the intentional pluralism of most Episcopal schools is a hallmark of their missions.” (NAES “Episcopal Identity”)
The head chaplain at my first Episcopal school used to tell prospective parents two very clear things as they came through the chapel on their admissions tours. First, Episcopalians are very good at asking questions, and we very rarely have the answers. Second, our goal is not to “make little Episcopalians of your children.” Rather, we seek to journey with your child as they discover their own beliefs and understanding of God, and live more deeply and faithfully their own tradition. In other words, we want to help your child become a better Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, atheist or otherwise, not convert them to Christianity.
When it comes to teaching religion in Episcopal schools, and the chapel experience, Episcopal schools welcome, honor and celebrate the wisdom, truth and beauty that all of the world’s religions offer to the human experience. This is why we celebrate holy days like Diwali, Ramadan, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in chapel. There are many paths to discovering God, and the religions of the world represent humankind’s attempts throughout history to know and connect with the Divine Presence, however we might name or describe that presence.
Think of the story of The Blind Men & the Elephant. In the parable, each blind man is touching only one part of the elephant (e.g., the tail, the leg, the trunk). To truly understand what an elephant is, they need to put the parts together. Likewise, each of us has a limited perspective when it comes to understanding God. No one religion, and no one sacred text, has an exclusive claim on truth and divine authority. We cannot comprehend or understand God alone. In fact, doing so can be dangerous and lead to all kinds of misinterpretations of God and God’s activity in the world (for example, religiously justified extremism, hate, discrimination and exclusion). Rather, we must come together, sit around the same table, and listen to one another’s truth.
And yet, very often, in our desire to be radically inclusive, Episcopal schools become reticent to embrace, articulate and claim with pride who we are and what we believe. In our attempt to honor all of the world’s religions, we tend to minimize our own Christian tradition. Some schools rarely mention God or Jesus. Some schools don’t include readings from scripture in chapel. We can swing so far to one extreme that many are left wondering if Jesus is even welcome in Episcopal Schools.
Dan Heishman addresses this question directly in his article, Is Jesus Welcome in Episcopal Schools? (see the NAES publication Reasons for Being: The Culture and Character of Episcopal Schools).
The answer is yes. Jesus can and should be powerfully present in Episcopal schools. As Heishman notes, “Jesus needs to have a place at the table, indeed needs to be heard from, in our communities.”
The question is how? Who is this Jesus who can speak meaningfully to the diversity of an Episcopal school community?
In the next installment of this series, we will take a deeper look at what it means to be “unapologetically Anglican” and to welcome Jesus into our schools.