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Listening: Theological education builds commonality, strengthens Anglican unity


The Rev. Susanne Watson Epting, deacon and executive director of the North American Association for the Diaconate, serves as a member of the diaconate subgroup on Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC) task force.    

[Episcopal News Service]  The Rev. Susanne Watson Epting, deacon and executive director of the North American Association for the Diaconate, serves as a member of the diaconate subgroup on Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC) task force and attended its recent meeting in South Africa January 13-21.

In an interview with Episcopal News Service, Epting discusses the values of theological education and emphasizes that there is no time more critical in the Anglican Communion for people to be listening to one another. The full text of the interview follows:

ENS: In what capacity were you invited to join the TEAC task force?

EPTING: I was at a meeting that was a follow up to an ecumenical consultation on the diaconate in 2002 and Canon Robert Paterson (TEAC's vice chair) asked if I might be interested. I was asked because we have a well-developed diaconate and North America has been working on this for quite a while now and in other places it's not so well developed. So, it was specifically to be able to speak to that area and then, as a consequence, I was appointed to the sub group that works with the diaconate and authorized lay ministries.

ENS: What is the history and background of TEAC?

EPTING: The most recent mandate for this group came from the Anglican Primates at their 2001 Kanuga meeting.

The first meeting for the entire task force was in Bristol, England, in June 2004. But most of our work is done electronically and we really began in groups before that. The steering committee certainly began before that. This may be the last meeting that we have together as an entire task force. The groups have worked effectively in between online.

ENS: What are the main talking points?

EPTING: We really are talking about theological education in the Anglican Communion and I think it's important that one would emphasize 'Anglican Communion.' I think some of the most important work is being done in the Anglican Way subgroup. I wouldn't say that all of our work hinges on what they do but I do think it's a kind of glue to which we all relate. For me it is much of the undergirding.

The subgroups -- one each on bishops, priests, deacons and authorized lay ministry, laity, and the Anglican Way -- really are taking a look at, in the best of all worlds, what each role looks like and then asking how we educate so that we can build a ground of commonality ... So definition has been important in each subgroup and the Anglican Way group is tremendously important. Each subgroup has been working with grids, which has been a good exercise in helping us focus on what is really important in discernment, formation and continuing education.

It's also been important to consider how that all that relates to the larger body and how each ministry is received.

ENS: What are the main challenges that have been identified?

EPTING: It does vary from subgroup to subgroup, but from the context of my own, when one talks about vocational deacons, for instance, that is not something that is widely experienced in the Communion, so again building that ground of commonality, just in terms of definition, is a challenge. When we talk about authorized lay ministries, a reader in one part of the world is not the same as it is in another part of the world and a "catechist" is not the same.

We all face the challenge of what we mean by context and how to hold that constructively in tension with a set of hoped-for outcomes while maintaining unity. As we've talked about those things, issues such as distribution of resources have come up. It's sometimes easy for those of us from wealthier areas of the world to assume that our resources will be helpful to others. For example, sometimes the books that we offer have little relevance in other cultural contexts and sometimes even our financial assistance is not offered in a way that helps with ongoing development. In my subgroup we had an interesting discussion about ways in which we might invest in scholarship within local contexts.

Language is a huge challenge, particularly in Africa with the many languages there. While it is important to encourage scholarship so that new resources are created, it is also important to make relevant translations available. Then the next step is to ensure that those of us in other parts of the world are learning from that scholarship as well.

ENS: Was there any discussion about issues of human sexuality?

EPTING: There was, but it did not take up a lot of the agenda. The group acknowledged that human sexuality was a source of difficulty in the Communion, but that the subject needs to be looked at on many different levels. The fact that the African continent and many places in the world are so deeply affected by HIV/AIDS has to do with human sexuality, so it's important to acknowledge that there is a much broader context.

ENS: How can the Episcopal Church contribute to these discussions on theological education?

EPTING: It's important for the Episcopal Church to listen deeply to the recommendations about the resources we really can bring to bear that will encourage scholarship throughout the Communion to make theological education accessible to all.

I hope that we can bring a certain amount of humility in that listening and willingness to recognize that the resources that we have offered in the past perhaps are not the most appropriate at this time. I would like to believe that some of the models that we do have, particularly on local levels, diocesan programs, could be helpful for people to look at as they develop things in their own local context.

ENS: Why is it important to invest all this time, energy and money into these discussions about theological education?

EPTING: What we have recognized as a global group is that there are tremendous disparities in theological education and it's important to address these. In addressing theological education in the Anglican Communion there is another opportunity for unity in how we education for ministry and mission and about what it means to be a part of the Anglican Communion. At this particular point in our history together I think that is critical. I don't think it is the charge of this task force to say who we are as the Anglican Communion, but it probably is important at every level for us to be talking about that, whatever network, whatever committee, whatever taskforce we're a part of.

ENS: How essential is listening at this time in the life of the Anglican Communion?

EPTING: I don't think that there could be any time more critical to listen to others. The more we listen to others, the more we recognize sometimes very simple places that we didn't understand. Deep listening that is accompanied perhaps by a prayer that says: God of all of us, help me hear what I need to hear. It's the only way that we're going to be able to build the kind of commonality or unity that we would all hope for.

[Two other members representing the Episcopal Church on TEAC are the Rev. George Hobson, canon theologian of the American Cathedral in Paris, and the Very Rev. Oge Beauvoir, dean of the Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church of Haiti.]