“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
In my last blog titled “Bishop’s Episcopal Identity: Intentionally Pluralistic,” I addressed the mission of Episcopal schools to be radically inclusive of all faith traditions.
In this installment of the series, we will look deeper at what it means to balance our commitment to “intentional pluralism” with the equally important commitment to unapologetically embrace and proclaim our Christian faith as it is expressed in the Episcopal tradition.
Being “unapologetically Episcopal” means at least two things:
First, we seek to expose our students to the rites, rituals and theology of the Episcopal Church. This is why every year we celebrate important holy days and seasons throughout the school year, including All Saints Day, Advent and Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter.
Second, it means that we honor and recognize Jesus as central to our identity, and we offer his teachings as a guide for our shared life together.
As I noted in part one of this series, in an effort to be radically inclusive of all traditions, Episcopal schools can become reticent to claim the centrality of Jesus.
Dan Heishman addresses this hesitancy 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 to his question 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.”
Because the image of Jesus has historically been so distorted by the media, religious extremists, and political agendas, Episcopal schools have the unique opportunity and responsibility to introduce students to the Jesus they never knew.
But, who is this Jesus who can speak meaningfully to the diversity of an Episcopal school community?
In my 16 years of experience as a school chaplain, I have come to find that there are several core identities of Jesus to which we can look as a guide and inspiration for our shared common life: Jesus as Servant, Jesus as Prophet, Jesus as Rabbi, and Jesus as an expression of Divine Love.
Jesus as Servant
In Matthew 25: 34-40, Jesus calls His followers to meet Him right where He says He will be: on the margins, among the outcasts of society, tending to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and the stranger (also translated as foreigner or refugee). He did not say that we would find him in the Temple in Jerusalem. He said we would find Him in the poor among us, and He calls the “least of these” His sisters and brothers.
Jesus’ life offers us a model for compassionate service. There are countless stories in the Gospels in which Jesus looks out onto the crowds and, seeing their brokenness, sorrows and needs, is moved with compassion to act on their behalf.
Theologian Karen Armstrong notes that this kind of compassion requires us to “dethrone ourselves from the center of the world and put another there.” This dethroning of ourselves is the beginning of a life of service. Following Jesus involves a commitment to this kind of selfless love in action. Faith is not only about professing certain beliefs; it is about serving others and learning to pray with our hands, our feet, and our very lives. For this reason, Episcopal schools have always had strong service-learning and community outreach programs.
Jesus as Prophet
A prophet is a messenger from God whose mission is to call the people of God to repentance, to turn away from that which does not give life to the one who does.
According to the Gospel of Luke, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, announcing His role as prophet to the people. Notice that Jesus’ prophetic mission focuses on the call to acts of justice:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Today, we stand at a critical moment in human history: a moment when we are called to proclaim light over darkness, love over hate, wisdom over ignorance, and hope over despair. One has only to look at recent events (for example, the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the astronomical rise in hate crimes against our Jewish sisters and brothers) to see that the need for repentance is great.
As prophet, Jesus came into the world to show us a new way of being, and He did so by turning the values of the world upside down. While the world teaches us to hate those who hate us, and to be unkind to those who are unkind to us, Jesus says, “Love your enemies (Luke 6:27).” While the world teaches us to harden our hearts, and to make people pay when they have wronged us, Jesus says, “Forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).” While the world teaches us to associate with those who are rich and powerful, Jesus says we are to befriend the outcast and take care of the poor and most vulnerable among us.
Following Jesus requires us to align our values with God's values, and our hopes for the world with God's hope for the world. In this way, we, too, are called to be a prophetic voice in the world - to “strive for justice and peace among all people (Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer).”
Jesus as Rabbi
As educational institutions - “lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom (A Prayer for Schools and Colleges, Book of Common Prayer)” - Episcopal schools are committed to opening minds to new horizons, encouraging intellectual risk taking, curiosity and imagination, and helping our students discover their passions. Jesus - as Rabbi, teacher and seeker of truth - did the same. Through stories and parables, He broke open minds, awakened souls, and offered revolutionary and counter-cultural ways of looking at the world. As Heishman notes, “no more poignant example of life as teaching can be found than in the life of Jesus.” Episcopal schools follow in the Rabbinic tradition of careful scholarship and the pursuit of wisdom and truth.
Jesus as Divine Love
Christians believe that Jesus is God’s love in human form. This love is ever-expansive and unconditional, and it never gives up. It manifests itself as grace, forgiveness and boundless acceptance. No matter who we are, what we look like, who we love, how we worship, or what we have done, we believe that all people are eternally embraced by God's expansive, generous and kind love. Episcopal schools are called to model this inclusive love in thought, word, deed and all of our endeavors.
As an Episcopal school, we have the privilege and joy of introducing our students to the life and teachings of Jesus. As Heishman notes, honoring Jesus should not be understood as a roadblock to honoring a variety of faith traditions. Rather, it is an invitation to do so. He writes:
“By talking about, praying in the name of, and holding up the figure of Jesus, we help our students better see themselves in relationship to their own traditions, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other faith. By being authentically who we are - an Episcopal school rooted in the teachings of Jesus - we hold up a particular mirror that does not distort other beliefs but invites members of our school community to define themselves better in contrast to or in concert with Jesus.”
Balancing our commitments to intentional pluralism and proclaiming our Episcopal faith can be challenging. We wrestle with the tension. We walk humbly. We honor all people. And we ask for God’s continued blessing, guidance and grace.