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Deputies 'encourage' language, cultural study for priests

By Sarah T. Moore and James Thrall
8/5/2003
[Episcopal News Service] 

A resolution (A060) proposing that seminarians study contemporary language and engage in cross-cultural programs is bouncing back and forth between the two houses as deputies and bishops wrestle over whether such training should be mandatory or simply “encouraged.”

“It’s had a tortured legislative history,” joked House of Deputies Secretary Rosemari Sullivan Tuesday morning as the deputies worked for clarity on the voting sequence.

In their consideration of the resolution, the House of Bishops amended the language offered by the Committee on Ministry in order to make the training mandatory. The committee, however, chose to restore its original wording of “strongly encourage” before passing the resolution on to the House of Deputies for their consideration.

After protracted debate Monday, deputies voted Tuesday morning to approve the committee’s version. It now returns to the bishops for their concurrence, although House of Deputies President George Werner said he would be working to set up a joint committee to help work out the differences between the two houses.

Deputies and bishops agree at least on the intent of the resolution to address one of the core concerns of the 20/20 movement in the church – that church leaders move more quickly to better engage the changing landscape of cultures and voices across the country.

As os Tuesday, the resolution recommends that all dioceses strongly encourage those preparing for ordination to study a contemporary language other than their native language and participate in an intentional cross-cultural program. Earlier, the resolution, as originally amended and passed by the bishops, was worded more strongly to revise the ordination canons to require study of language or culture and intercultural field education.

In discussion in the House of Deputies on Monday, Deputy Mary Jane Nestler of Los Angeles proposed a compromising amendment that would have left the “strongly encourage” language in place but would have called for canonical revisions to “address the church’s need for multilingual and cross-culture competency among clergy and lay leaders,” with a report to be brought to the next General Convention. Deputies defeated that amendment.

“We don’t need three years of study to move into the 21st century,” said Sarah Lawton, vice chair of the Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism, chair of the 20/20 Strategy Group, and lay alternate deputy from California. “By 2020, not to mention by 2050, we’re all going to be faced with this. For instance the Hispanic culture is the fastest growing in the south, in the Carolinas. We’re not just seeing it in certain areas of the country. Bringing everyone to the center of the community, we need to develop an intercultural sensitivity.”

The Rev. Carol R. Tookey of Navajoland Area Mission said that she studied French in elementary school and Spanish in college, neither of which has helped her in ministries with Danish-Americans and Navajos. Still, she said, she felt that her language training was useful, and so she urged making language training a canonical requirement.

Catherine F. Martenson of San Diego, however, raised questions about the word “cross-cultural competency” in the amendment, suggesting it would “open a can of worms” as to “who will judge competency.”

The Ven. Eric V. Heidecker of  Nevada argued that the resolution with the amendment was “far superior” to the original wording. “It gives us the wiggle room we need as Anglicans,” he said. The amendment also refers to lay leaders, he pointed out. “That inclusion of lay leaders talks about the whole church; fixing the church isn’t the same as fixing the priest.”

The Rev. Patricia Hanen of Ohio, who described herself as “a 55-year-old woman with, I think, it’s now eight languages not counting the dead ones,” argued against requiring language study. “People don’t learn them well when they are required to learn them. They learn them when they want to speak to other people,” she said. “I don’t think this, well intentioned though it is, belongs as part of our canons. We need to remain flexible and realistic in what we require both of our priests and our lay leaders.”

Nell Toensmann of the Churches of Europe maintained that, as important as language knowledge is to clergy living in Europe, cultural sensitivity is more important. “We welcome the clergy who come among us,” she said. “Some of the have language skills, some of them don’t. Some of them attempt to learn the languages when they’re there. The main thing is that they are people who are culturally sensitive to the people among whom they live.”

Even the English-speaking congregations in Europe may have “people from 30 different cultures,” she said. What’s most important is for clergy to “be able to reach out and … make them feel that they are welcome.”

Several speakers pointed out the difficulties a language requirement would create for clergy raised up out of local communities to address the needs of specific groups. A language requirement would place “an added burden on those being trained for local ministry while holding full-time jobs,”  noted the Rev. Jo Ann Smith of Kansas.

Speaking with the help of a sign-language interpreter, a priest from Central New York who is deaf said that “many deaf people are not completely competent in English and can’t learn another language.” She urged deputies to “be aware that if we direct the church to include this in the canons, later people will want to make it compulsory and that would be bye-bye 20/20 and bye-bye local ministry. I don’t think that is what you want.”

Dana Allen of the official youth presence said she wanted to remind the deputies of “the importance of the word 'encourage.'” For those with “certain physical disabilities … and learning disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder,” it can be “extremely hard, if not in some cases, impossible to become fluent in additional languages beyond the required Greek and Hebrew.”

The amendment failed by a wide margin. Before deputies approved the resolution itself, the Rev. Ian Douglas of Massachusetts, professor of mission and world Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School, argued for passage. Douglas said he is convener of the Episcopal Seminaries’ Consultation on Mission, which he described as “a two-decades-old venture under the auspices of the deans of the seminaries to support mission studies and mission experiences in your seminaries.”

Through an endowment of more than $1 million, the organization provides $60,000 a year for grants to support seminarians in cross-cultural experiences, he said. “I stand here and I urge your adoption of this resolution,” he said. “I pledge that through the Standing Commission on World Mission, your seminaries will continue to extend this important educational experience.”