Monday, August 18, 2008

Does The Episcopal Church Really Value Adult Education?

Over at TitusOneNine, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon has written an important piece about adult education in The Episcopal Church. I think he hits the nail on the head. And with Fall programming kicking in just after Labor Day, it couldn't be more timely.

How can the Episcopal Church claim to be the thinking people’s church when so few parishes devote sufficient time to adult education on Sunday mornings?

It is a question worthy of much pondering. I think we should where at all possible give one hour to adult spiritual formation on the Lord’s day — but if you study how parishes actually function, the number who use this standard is precious few.

In some parishes there is little or no adult education to speak of on Sunday mornings, whereas there are such offerings for children. But following Christ is a life long call, and this approach won’t do.

Thankfully in the last two to three decades more and more parishes are offering adult education on the Sabbath day. But how much time do they give them?

I have here a parish newsletter from one of the largest parishes in the country, and on their Sunday morning schedule they offer several classes for 35 minutes.

You know how this works in practice. People come out of worship, people have struggles finding a parking spot, people need to use the rest room, and before you know it, 35 minutes becomes 25 or less in practice. But this is much less time than a typical college class, or an average session in a business seminar. Does this communicate a priority on adult education?

Other parishes do better and actually give 45 minutes. But again, one has to go beneath the surface in the parish to see how this actually functions in a number of instances. One quite vibrant parish comes to mind that has 45 minute classes, but in this parish the choir members leave after 30 minutes for Sunday morning choir practice. What does this communicate about priorities, never mind the distraction to other class members?

I believe one hour needs to be devoted to adult education, because even then with all the distractions on most Sunday mornings the time actually spent on the material is less, but it at least allows substantive engagement. Yes, parishes should use every considerable resource. By all means we should use different formats that taken into account the fact that adults learn in different ways than children do.

I realize, too, that some parishes have physical space constraints that make this amount of time impossible without unduly damaging the chance to worship.

But if we do not give it sufficient time, we communicate in our actions that it really isn’t a priority.

It is time for the church that claims to be the thinking person’s church to live into its own claims and devote a whole hour on the Sunday morning schedule to adult education of real quality and variety.

Imagine that—a church that claims to be for thinking people giving people real time to think on Sunday morning about what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. If it is really important to us can we do any less?

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Bryan Owen said...

Actually, I do have one issue with Kendall's piece: Sunday is not the Sabbath.

Chris+ said...

I agree with you and Kendall. Adult ed. is critically important. Another aspect of the problem has nothing to do with the time allocated, but with a lack of turn out. Some parishes just aren't interested enough to come to a class. When I talk about the importance of Adult ed., I hear back that people can only give an hour to the Church on Sunday. I hesitate to put too much effort into a class that very few will attend. Instead, I have concentrated on seasonal Wed. evening classes. I find that more folk are likely to commit to a six-week series, than a Sunday morning offering. I haven't given up.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent point, Chris. We can have all the time in the world, but if the turnout stinks, what differences does it make?

The Underground Pewster said...

Does the Episcopal Church value Adult education? Not as much as other denominations in this part of the South. Perhaps there are historical reasons for this. Whatever the case, for modern pewpeople, their only exposure to scripture is at the Sunday service. Because of secular education, Bible literacy is very low. These days, Adult Christian Education has to consider being "remedial."

Another component of Adult education is daily reading (and I think this is a serious deficiency in the Episcopal Church). Daily reading and prayer can lead people to participate in groups because they will need the input from others to deal with the scriptures, and this helps build a Christian community.

In my experience clergy presence in the classes is important, especially orthodox clergy, but they do not have to be responsible for the preparation.

And what about the choir? They miss out on the Sunday classes because of rehearsal. They rarely show up for evening classes, perhaps feeling they "pray thrice" what with rehearsals during the week as well. They do not know what they are missing.

Seasonal weekday or evening classes usually start off with "adequate" numbers that dwindle over time, but what do you consider "adequate?"

Matthew 18:20,

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Underground Pewster. I agree that much of adult Christian ed these days should probably be considered "remedial." Unless somebody in TEC has done EfM, prepared to be licensed as a lay reader, taken courses at a seminary, done some study on their own with good resources, or come from another denomination that emphasizes sound theological/biblical education, they're not likely to be biblically and theologically literate. I'm sometimes amazed by the comments I hear from fellow Episcopalians on various and sundry theological topics, and I wonder: do they really know what they're talking about? Perhaps what they think they reject they would more readily embrace if they had a better understanding.

I've written more extensively about this on another posting in which I cite an essay by Barbara Brown Taylor. Perhaps there's some cold comfort in knowing that the problem - while serious in TEC - is not limited to Episcopalians.