Communities of Faith: The Div School Looks Inward

When the Harvard Divinity School was founded 161 years ago, James Monroe was president of the United States, Pope Pius VII was head of the Roman Catholic Church, and the world in general held an outlook far different from that of modern society. The changes that have occurred since then, and in particular the trends of the last 20 years, have had a marked effect upon the Divinity School and its relationship with the outside world. In an effort to analyze this effect, Krister Stendahl, dean of the Divinity School, has attempted, in a report to President Bok that will be distributed next month, to describe the role of the Divinity School in the modern age, and to point out those areas in which the Divinity School should act in the future.

The report focuses on the preparation for the ministry given at the Div School. In the report, Stendahl proposes more of an emphasis on ministerial studies, and calls for strengthening in the teaching of the arts of ministry. In order to foster the growth of what he calls a "learned ministry," Stendahl makes several proposals, including a tightening of the core curriculum required for students preparing for the ministry, the promotion of a higher competence in quantitative skills, and the strengthening of ties between the Div School and established churches.

The report is a continuation of the report Stendahl made to President Bok last year. In last year's message, Stendahl said "the primary constituencies of a divinity school are communities of faith," adding, "If this rootage in and relation to communities of faith is a valid starting point for defining our purpose and mission, then the result of our work as a divinity school must be measured by a standard like this one: If it has not yet happened in the churches, then it has not happened yet."

One method by which Stendahl proposes to increase the Div School's commitment to a learned ministry is to increase the proportion of students in the school's ministerial program, without increasing the student body. Currently, there are 141 students, nearly half of the school's population, enrolled in the three-year Master of Divinity degree program--the program taken by students pursuing a career in the ministry.

Stendahl proposes to increase the core curriculum required of students enrolled in the Master of Divinity program. Currently, students enrolled in the Master of Divinity program are required to complete 12 full courses, but are free to choose their courses as they like. In the curriculum for Master of Divinity degree students, the school needs "to consolidate a core of knowledge, competence and understanding which is a common denominator instead of a curriculum which mainly lets people pursue what they are interested in," Stendahl says.

Stendahl also proposes an increase in the exposure to quantitative skills given to students interested in the ministry. In this year's report, he says the representative function requires the theoretical and practical skills for institutional leadership, critique and planning. It is at that point that I see the need for a higher competence in quantitative skills and modes of thinking."

By increasing the importance of ministerial studies, Stendahl hopes to narrow the gap that exists today between the school and established churches. These churches are important, Stendahl says, adding, "people aren't aware of to what extent the churches are the mainstream of spiritual religion." In his report, Stendahl says, "A systematic study of, for example, the Religion section in Time would give a picture of a series of frantic experiments within and on the fringes of the religious communities. But the sum total of such experiments hardly add up to a dependable picture of ministry."

"It is also true that, expecially in the '60s, there was a general kind of feeling that the academic world was really the primary bearer of the spiritual tradition," Stendahl says, adding that because this was so, a large number of people interested in a career in religion went into teaching. In his report, Stendahl says, "A theology that does not exist and grow in some kind of continuity with the cultural, educational and academic climate of the nation will not take deep roots in the life of that nation," adding that theological ideas that are not in continuity with American culture "have the character of cut flowers or at best potted plants not capable of outdoor survival."

The rate at which students interested in religion have gone into teaching has slowed down, Stendahl says, because of the importance of established religions to the maintenance of religious tradition. "The quality of leadership in the churches is the most significant way of keeping the tradition healthy and filled with vitality," Stendahl says.

Guy V. Martin, dean of students at the Divinity School, says one of the ways in which the school could improve its contact with the rest of the religious world is by establishing better communication with different schools. In the past, Martin says, the school has been "stereotyped in terms of liberal Protestant theological tradition."

Martin agrees with Stendahl that the Div School should have a "strong representation" of students interested in the ministry. Students enrolled in the Master of Divinity program are "almost uniquely free of requirements," Martin says, adding that, outside of being required to take the minimum 12 full courses, Master of Divinity candidates have language and field education requirements. As to the likelihood of a decision by the Div School faculty to institute a core program of courses for the Master of Divinity program, Martin says, "I think there's a fair split among faculty members." Martin adds that he expects that some core system of requirements will be instituted "in practice if not in principle."

C. Conrad Wright '37, professor of American Church History, and secretary of the Divinity faculty, says there is "no question" that the faculty will tighten up its requirements for the Master of Divinity program, adding that he is not sure of the direction that the tightening up will take. Wright says that the area of quantitative skills in the Masters program hasn't really been discussed yet by the faculty, and adds that the area is something that Stendahl is especially interested in.

Glenn W. Boynton, associate dean for finance and development at the Divinity School, says that the area of education in quantitative skills is one in which he "might disagree" with Stendahl. Boynton says that the Div School "ought not to try to reinvent capabilities that exist elsewhere in the University." Boynton says that he is not sure how the school could adapt these capabilities to meet its needs, adding that he agrees with Stendahl that the tools of analysis are useful to students in the Master of Divinity program.

Boynton says that Stendahl's proposal of a core curriculum for Master of Divinity degree candidates is "under consideration right now" by the Div School faculty. Currently, Boynton says, there are guidelines--courses offered in a variety of fields, including the Old Testament, Religion, Theology, Ethics, and the Church and Society. The debate is whether these guidelines should remain guidelines or become requirements, Boynton says, adding that the debate is similar to the core curriculum discussion currently going on in the College.

"The faculty will make sure that nobody receives a Master of Divinity degree who has a glaring lack of exposure to background," Boynton says, adding that the method by which this will be done is a matter of debate.

Boynton says he thinks that the Div School should strengthen its relationship with established churches, adding "theological education tends to operate within a club of its own." Boynton says that Stendahl has helped make the rest of the Div School aware of the need for such a relationship.

Boynton is also concerned about the financial situation of the Div School. "Our financial resources seem to be suffering at the very moment when we see a demand for the programs that we make available," Boynton says, adding that because the school is so heavily dependent on endowment income, it has less flexibility than its sister schools.

John A. Matheson, a student enrolled in the Master of Divinity program, says he is in "general agreement" with the idea of a core curriculum. "Students come here with one pet field" and get ordained as ministers after graduation without a general knowledge in all fields, Matheson says.

Joseph J. Ball, a student in the Master of Theological Studies program, a two-year strictly academic course of study, says that contact between established churches and the school exists in the form of a questionnaire given to students in the beginning of the school year.

Students list their religious affiliation on the form, and are put in contact with local branches of their churches, Ball says, adding "There is talk among students that there is a lack of organized spiritual life--there might be a need for the school to do something in a more organized way."

The final result of Stendahl's recommendations remains to be seen. What does appear likely is that the movement of the Div School towards what Stendahl calls the established "communities of faith" is a process that has been going on for several years and will continue for some time to come.