Episcopal seminaries embrace role as testing grounds for the Way of Love in action

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 14, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] At Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, it is being used to frame small group discussions about cultural issues and Friday morning worship. Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York has used it to deepen the seminary’s commitment to justice issues. And at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, it is shaping seminarians’ field work in local parishes.

This is the Way of Love in action, with an emphasis on Christian formation.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry unveiled the Way of Love’s seven practices in a sermon during the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas, in July. He and his team of advisers looked to monastic traditions for their model in developing the Way of Love’s framework for a rule of life based in seven practices: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest.

Stephanie Spellers

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers is canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The church encouraged Episcopal seminaries to incorporate this framework into their programs of theological education in ways appropriate to their individual contexts. Such institutions were an ideal venue for experimentation because of their “quasi-monastic” atmosphere and their influence on the future of the church, said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care.

“Change in the experience of theological education yields a changed church,” Spellers told Episcopal News Service. “If we can help to make seminary a time of deep engagement with spiritual practice and … help people to develop a deeper relationship with Jesus during those years, pretty soon you’ve got a very different church.”

Virginia Theological Seminary, or VTS, is one example of an institution that has taken the Way of Love and run with it.

Lisa Kimball, the school’s associate dean for lifelong learning and a member of the team that helped Curry develop the Way of Love, said she is supervising a student developing a Way of Love parish retreat for Lent as part of an independent study. Kimball also has presented the Way of Love to the Christian formation courses she teaches, while highlighting the growing churchwide trove of resources based on the framework.

Students are leading the way, too. A VTS student worship team kicked off Friday morning services this month centered on the Way of Love practices. A working group at the seminary is developing a faculty rule of life based on the Way of Love. It has been shared with the campus community by e-newsletter, and Kimball encourages students who find examples in the congregations where they worship to bring those ideas back to campus and share them.

“I feel committed to the ambitious goal that everyone that graduates from VTS will be familiar with the Way of Love as the perfect process it is for discipleship,” Kimball told ENS, “and therefore will know where the resources are and will have a powerful model for inviting people to practice the way of love … in ministry.”

Way of Love wallet card

Worshippers were given Way of Love wallet cards at the July 5 opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas, as seen in this photo taken from an Episcopal Church video of the service.

The seven practices should be familiar to most Christians, but by pulling them together in a rule of life, the presiding bishop’s team sought to give Episcopalians a clearer idea for how to live out their faith as part of what Curry often calls “the Jesus Movement.”

  • TURN: Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.
  • LEARN: Reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings.
  • PRAY: Dwell intentionally with God each day.
  • WORSHIP: Gather in community weekly to thank, praise and dwell with God.
  • BLESS: Share faith and unselfishly give and serve.
  • GO: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus.
  • REST: Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration.

That’s the starting point. Episcopal institutions, from Forward Movement to Forma, are building from there, treating the Way of Love like a piece of open-source computer software for the soul. The Episcopal Church is promoting its own resources tied to the liturgical year, with materials now available for Lent.

“The approach that we’ve tried to make is to offer a framework, offer a very generous shape for a rule of life, and then step back and let the people and the spirit take it where they need to go,” Spellers said. “I’m very excited to see what will seminaries do with this.”

Most recently, Episcopal seminaries and schools of theology have been applying the Way of Love to their Lenten preparations.

The Rev. Caroline Carson, a deacon and third-year seminarian at Sewanee: University of the South in Tennessee, has produced Lenten reflections each year while at the seminary, and this year she is incorporating the seven Way of Love practices.

“Sometimes, it may be a call to fast for that afternoon in reflection of an area of the Anglican Communion in strife,” Carson said in an emailed statement. “Sometimes, it may be an invitation to worship in a different setting. Often it will be a question asking how will you be a visible sign of God’s love to someone today?”

Carson also is developing a Way of Love community bulletin board to collect students’ ideas, and she plans to create a Way of Love station in campus commons room, where students can come for baked goods and take slips of paper that combine lines of Scripture with calls to reflect, pray and learn.

At the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, “we really don’t implement that within our curriculum officially,” spokesman Eric Scott said, but the seminary maintains close relationships with local parishes, where talk of the Way of Love has “exploded.”

“It kind of informally works its way into classrooms,” Scott said. “We really empower our students to build those things organically on their own.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches Feb. 11 at General Theological Seminary’s Chapel of the Good Shepard in New York. Photo: General Theological Seminary

General Theological Seminary in New York also is in the early stages of considering how to incorporate the Way of Love into its program. It received plenty of inspiration Feb. 11 when Curry preached in the seminary’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

“This Jesus of Nazareth has shown us the way,” Curry said. “This Jesus of Nazareth, his way of love is the way of life. It is the way that will set us all free.”

Episcopal Divinity School, or EDS, welcomed its first cohort of 10 seminarians in the fall after reaching an affiliation agreement with Union Theological Seminary. Miguel Escobar, director of Anglican Studies at EDS at Union, said he and the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of EDS at Union, were inspired by Curry’s sermon at General Convention when he first spoke of the Way of Love.

EDS “has a long history of seeing the Gospel as very focused on justice issues,” Escobar said in an interview with ENS, citing racial justice, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. The Way of Love, from that perspective, is also the way of justice, he said, and with each of the seven practices, “there’s actually a public justice aspect of it.”

“Go,” in particular, speaks to the Christian call to work toward a better community for all members, Escobar said. The “Turn” toward Jesus also entails a turn away from hatred and fear. And in “Prayer,” Episcopalians are urged to pray for the least among us, but also to pray with the least among us in the community, he said.

Although EDS at Union has not yet created any new educational or formation offerings for its students based specifically on the Way of Love, Escobar said the presiding bishop’s rule of life is informing conversations in EDS classrooms and beyond.

Jed Dearing, a second-year seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, or CDSP, is helping a nearby Episcopal parish, St. John’s in Ross, connect its parishioners to the Way of Love. He told ENS in an interview that he sees the framework of taking rule of life practices that may be most familiar to people sharing their faith in small groups and bringing those practices to full congregations and the broader church.

“In a liturgical church like ours, based on the lectionary, unless you’re in a special season, like Lent or Advent, broader themes can get lost,” he said. “To have a way to integrate those [themes] in a clear way that can be received by folks in the business of their lives has been a helpful piece.”

That framework has been on the minds of Dearing and his fellow CDSP seminarians at least since September, when Spellers spoke on campus about the Way of Love and related resources being developed. St. John’s, too, has been active since September in encouraging parishioners to take up the seven practices. This month, the congregation is focusing on “Bless,” with a discussion group on Feb. 10 and a “mini-retreat” planned for March 2.

At a parish retreat in September, Dearing led a session about developing a rule of life and another session about contemplative prayer as seen through the lens of the Way of Love.

“It’s given the parish almost like permission to do some new and some playful things,” Dearing said, and as a seminarian, the experience has offered him lessons in how to integrate Christian formation into parish life.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.