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Seminary on the hill

Berkeley Center Cover

It’s 7:30 a.m. on an October morning in New Haven. Most Yale University students are still nestled under their blankets. But about 80 are awake. They’re quietly entering St. Luke’s Chapel at the Berkeley Center on the corner of St. Ronan and Canner Streets in the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven. Some bow to the large wooden cross as they enter. Others simply nod their heads or do the sign of the cross. The students then take seats in the wooden chairs set up in rows on opposite sides of an altar and lectern that stands before the cross in the middle of the chapel. For a few minutes the group sits silently. Then someone begins to read. All respond in unison. The sun shines, still low in the sky, through a window on the eastern side of the room. And for these students, training to be ordained as clergy in the Episcopal Church, another day begins.

Most students don’t go to Yale for religious life. The eighty students of Berkeley Divinity School gathered in St. Luke’s Chapel on this morning have come to Yale not only to study religion but also to practice it.

Berkeley is an Episcopal seminary. That means its academic program prepares students to enter the clergy of the Episcopal Church. But Berkeley is structurally unique among seminaries: Most schools that prepare students for the priesthood are not affiliated with ecumenical divinity schools such as Yale. (Ecumenical divinity schools includes students from various different Christian faiths: Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Lutheran, etc.) Berkeley students have chosen to study in the context of a large research university.

“In the wider world of theological education, the partnership that exists between Berkeley and Yale is rather unusual—the fact that there is a denominational seminary attached to a University divinity school,” the Very Reverend Joseph Britton, current Dean of Berkeley, said. Berkeley students apply to Yale Divinity School or the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. The applicant can indicate interest in Berkeley on the application, but formally enrolls in the seminary only after receiving acceptance to Yale Divinity or the Institute of Sacred Music.

Students that choose to join Berkeley still take standard Yale Divinity school courses. But Berkeley students also complete a three-year leadership colloquium, year-long internship in a church or school, and required courses in Anglican theology. Graduates of Berkeley leave the school after three years with a degree in Anglican studies from Yale Divinity and the ability to be ordained into the clergy of the Episcopal Church.

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Many of the students who attend 7:30 a.m. prayer in St. Luke’s Chapel each morning chose Berkeley for its close connection to Yale. The Divinity School provides the seminary with academic resources and rigor unusual in the world of Episcopal seminaries.

The combination reaches back 40 years. The Berkeley seminary had been in New Haven since 1928, when it moved to the Elm City from Middletown, Conn. But the two schools did not formally merge their students and faculty until 1971.

“Berkeley’s influence as a denominational seminary on the professional studies dimension of YDS has strengthened its curriculum and helped to keep the Master of Divinity program [which YDS administers] focused and vital,” Dean Britton wrote in a recent school newsletter. “Yale’s academic standards have, in turn, continued to keep the bar set high for Berkeley’s programs of formation and education for ministry.”

Anne Thatcher, YDS ’14, a first-year student at Berkeley, agreed. She said that historically the preaching aspect of the church has been thought of as separate from academic side. Berkeley proves that notion wrong, she said. Many of her professors are both Episcopal priests and scholars.

Peter Johnston, SY ’09, YDS ’14, another first-year student, said that for him Yale was an “obvious choice” because it provided him with the ability to both attend a seminary and “have a rigorous academic study of Christianity.” Hilary Camblos, YDS ’12, a third-year student, also said that the strong academics of Yale attracted her to Berkeley. One of her fears had been that training for priesthood would not be an intellectual endeavor, but at Yale Divinity she has found it is.

Other students said the ecumenical nature of Yale Divinity School drew them to Berkeley. “I came here because it presented a great opportunity to be both within my own tradition and within an ecumenical environment,” Giuseppe Gagliano, a second-year student, said.

Matt Lindeman, YDS ’12, a third-year student, echoed this sentiment. Lindeman also added that, especially in recent years, Berkeley has done more to engage with broader Yale Divinity community. (All events, services, courses, and programs Berkeley offers are open to Yale Divinity students.) He had thought about attending the school in 2005 after he graduated from Earlham College, but said that at that time Berkeley felt “clubby” and “insular.” Lindeman, whose father graduated from Berkeley in 1983, instead entered the Peace Corps in El Salvador. But in 2009, he left the Corps to attend the seminary. The atmosphere at Berkeley had changed: “The tone of the place has become more integrated and that’s what I was looking for.”

Camblos said she thinks that the ecumenical environment provides her with a deeper understanding of her own Episcopal faith. “You learn a lot about your own denomination when you’re learning with people who don’t have same beliefs as you,” she said.

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Attending Berkeley is on one level a commitment to studying with Christians of various faiths. But in a larger sense attending the Seminary is a large step towards entering the clergy. I asked Camblos why she wanted to take this step. Her answer surprised me. “I was dragged into it,” she said. “God won the arm wrestling match.”

Camblos said she first heard her “call” to the ministry at the age of 12. But she ignored it. She did not attend seminary, but instead studied wildlife science and leadership and social change at Virginia Tech. Then, during her senior year of college in 2004, she entered the discernment process.
Discernment, a process that involves meeting with a committee of laymen at your church for six months to a year, is the first formal step to the Episcopal ministry. The potential clergy member explores whether the priesthood is something to which he or she truly wants to commit. The committee tries to determine whether the person would make a good minister. Camblos decided during the process that she wasn’t ready to enter the ministry.

“I had certain conceptions about what ministry was that I thought would be contrary to my ethos,” she said. Camblos feared being part of an institution that historically was “a means to evil ends.” She also wondered how sexism in the Church would affect her experience as a priest. (The current presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman, but some within the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, the global religious organization that includes the American Episcopal Church, remain opposed to the ordination of women.)

Camblos decided to travel and, after three years, moved to Paris. There she again began attending the Episcopal Church, and rediscovered her love for her faith. Soon she returned to the United States to begin looking at seminaries.

Still, her fears about sexism in the Church remained. Eventually the advice of various priests eased her hesitation.  She said these clergy members told her,that “the church needs people in leadership who are critical of where it’s been historically—instruments of progress, people who listen to where God is calling.”

But her resistance to entering the ministry only truly disappeared after she submitted her application to YDS, she said. The “deep sense of anxiety” she had felt turned to a “deep sense of peace.”

In an email, Camblos clarified that being “dragged into” the ministry was not a negative. She only recognized this after she entered Berkeley. Then she realized that the reasons she had feared joining the ministry were “superficial.” She now seems sure her decision to enter seminary was right. “I’m deeply joyful, peaceful and fulfilled in this work, even when it’s difficult, which is a sign that I’m doing what God is asking me to do,” Camblos wrote.

Sam Owen, YDS ’12, also a third-year student, said he too felt a “call” to the priesthood which he ignored for much of his life. Owen, who is 51, said he worked in business for 23 years, but eventually “could no longer ignore” the Church. He hopes to lead a parish after he graduates this spring.

In the vibrant, full services at Berkeley, it’s easy to forget that membership in the Episcopal Church has declined steadily over the past few decades. The Church lost about six percent of its membership from 2003 to 2007, according to a study cited in The New York Times. “The Episcopal Church has declined and declined and declined during my time,” said Reverend Tony Jarvis, who leads the Educational Leadership and Ministry Program at Berkeley. But Reverend Jarvis, who has served in the Church for 47 years, first as a Parish priest, then for 30 years as headmaster of the elite Roxbury Latin School in Boston, and now at Yale, also added, “I’ve never been more hopeful about its future.”

Owen said he is “not scared” by the fact that numbers are down in the Church. “The number of people seeking spiritual meaning in their lives, that’s not down,” he said.

Jarvis agrees. “There’s a deep need right now in society for something more, for something beyond,” he said. “We’re trapped in a very ‘here and now’ universe.”

Some Berkeley students think evangelism is the best way to reinvigorate the Church and increase membership. Camblos works with an organization called the Episcopal Evangelism Network. “We’re interested in doing what we call progressive evangelism. We really love the Episcopal Church and we think other people would too if they knew about it,” she said. Camblos added that her organization believes it’s important to ask, “How can we do this in a way that’s respectful to other people?” The organization tries to rethink the traditional styles of the Church in order to apply the Episcopalian faith to different groups of people.

Johnston said he appreciates the interest in evangelism among Berkeley students. Johnston himself was raised in a non-denominational, evangelical Christian background. He thinks evangelism should play a larger role in the Episcopalian faith. “Increasingly Episcopalians are realizing that they need to talk about Jesus if they don’t want the Church to die,” he said. (He defines evangelism as “preaching the gospel and sharing the good news of God and Jesus Christ.”)

Historically, the main role of Episcopalian priests and pastors has been to “serve the Christians of a given community,” Johnston said. “That’s certainly one of the most important things that a priest or pastor can do,” Johnston said. “But the job description has to broaden to include proclamation to those who are either nominal Christians or those who have no experience with Christianity at all. There’s a need for priests or pastors who can tell the story of Jesus in a compelling way.”

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Declining membership is not the only issue the church faces today. Debate still persists on whether to ordain gay and female clergy members. Bishop V. Gene Robinson was elected as the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003. (He announced in November 2010 that he plans to step down from his position in his New Hampshire diocese in 2013.) The decision produced a large rift not only in the American Episcopal Church, but in the Anglican Communion as a whole. In 2006, the Episcopal Church passed a moratorium on ordaining gay bishops to stave off further separation. But, in 2009, that moratorium was overturned. In 2010, another gay bishop was confirmed.

Reverend Jarvis said he believed very few members of the Berkeley community were opposed to the ordination of gays and women. But he added that he respects opposition to the ordination of gay bishops. He said that some people are not necessarily opposed to homosexuality, but believe that ordaining a gay bishop threatens the work of bringing the various strands of Christianity together. Such arguments maintain that confirming gay bishops would send relations with Catholicism, for example, into a “lull.” Reverend Jarvis added: “Is that worth opposing doing what you believe is right? In my view, no. I believe it shouldn’t make a difference what your sexual orientation is.”

I asked Johnston if he thought the debate over gay bishops would become a crisis for the church. “I’m basically just not focused on fighting political battles within the church,” he said. He added, “You frequently hear in the American elite Protestant world something like you are welcome or the Episcopal Church welcomes you or we are open and inclusive, things like that. And it’s true that God does call all people to himself through Jesus, but we kind of miss the message if we leave off there. The message isn’t simply come as you are. It’s come as you are and leave transformed. The church isn’t simply an exercise in affirming people’s life and experiences in the dominant culture of the day. It’s about calling people to transformation that is a result of a relationship with Jesus and with God.” But Johnston kept distance from any specific statement: “I don’t want to get caught up in those issues because I think that it makes it rather difficult to preach the gospel.”

Dean Britton said Berkeley has never taken a stand on the issues of gay or female clergy. “I don’t think that they’re nearly the high feelings about these issues that there were a few years ago when the Episcopal Church was first confronting them,” he said. “I think we’ve learned to engage the topic a little more thoughtfully and dispassionately, but there’s certainly a wide diversity of opinion on it.”

Johnston first involved himself in the Episcopal Church while he was a Yale undergraduate. He began attending Christ Church on Broadway for their Sunday evening Compline service.

“The Compline service really reoriented the way I thought about prayer and helped me to think about prayer as a way of entering into a space of reliance upon God and using words of Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian tradition to allow God to change me,” he said. To Johnston, prayer is “less about trying to get God to satisfy whatever your desire is for the day and it’s more about allowing God to enter into your heart and to address your deeper desires and to change you so that you are in conformity with the character of reality which is to say God.”

Thought, discussion, and practice of prayer is increasingly important at both Berkeley and YDS. The former funds the James E. Annand Program for Spiritual Formation, named after a former dean of the school. Berkeley operates an endowment of about $27 million to fund such programs, said Carl Anderson, who chairs the Seminary’s board of trustees. (This money is invested with the Yale endowment, but controlled by the Berkeley board.)

Reverend Jarvis clarified the meaning of “spiritual formation.”  “The major part of every priest’s life is to say the daily office, the daily prayers,” he said. “What does prayer involve? Some of it is intercession. You’re thinking of people that you need to pray for, that you’ve promised to pray for.

As Isaiah said: ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.’ In other words, some of it is just putting yourself in the presence of God and trying to sort of get there and re-center your life on God. The Annand Program tries to teach you all those kinds of prayer. We want our students on their knees, figuratively at least, to start the day and say, ‘Look, I want to offer this day up to you, oh Lord.’” In fact, at one point during the 7:30 a.m. service each morning in St. Luke’s Chapel, students do pray on their knees.

Dean Britton said that this emphasis on prayer is a relatively new development within the seminary, and especially within YDS, which traditionally emphasizes academic approaches to Christianity. Many non-Berkeley, Yale Divinity Students have also joined the Annand Program, Britton said. Matt Lindeman said that the people he worked with in the program provided him with a much-needed “spiritual home base.”

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But Berkeley also has a physical home base. The Berkeley Center is a large mansion that hosts various services and community events. Dean Britton lives in an apartment on the second floor with his wife, Karla Britton, a lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, and their two children. Five Berkeley students also live in the building: two in a basement apartment and three on the third floor. Students apply each spring for these positions; Dean Britton selects those who will live in the house. The first floor is home to St. Luke’s Chapel, where the morning prayer takes place each day, several large sitting rooms, a dining room, and kitchen.

“It’s like a very small version of one of the undergraduate colleges where faculty and students are living together under one roof with lots of social events going on,” Dean Britton said. “It becomes the sort of heart of the community life at Berkeley.”

The five students who live in the home help organize events in the Center. The most regular of these are a Wednesday night dinner that takes place after evening services and morning coffee after prayer. On Wednesdays, the five student residents prepare the dinner for about one hundred people. Non-Berkeley affiliated Yale Divinity students also attend.

“Living in this house is just a great opportunity to really kind of live at the center of the spiritual life of the community,” said Peter Johnston, who lives in the Center this year. “But living in the house is also an opportunity to serve the community. It’s actually really rewarding because its work that has a very tangible outcome. You know people get to eat and people are grateful for it and its just a way to live into the kinds of things that were talking and learning about in school.”

Oscar Lied, YDS ’13, who also lives in the Center, said the social aspects of the Center drew him there. “I wanted to move out of a more isolated existence into a community where I would be around more people,” he said. “It’s really the place for the Berkeley community to be a community and to interact as a community.”

On Wednesday night at about 7:15, after an evening service at the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, Berkeley and Yale Divinity students gathered in the foyer of the Center. Johnston stood on the large staircase leading up to the Dean’s apartment. Cheers filled the room as he dramatically read the menu: mashed potatoes, pork, and salad with almonds. Then he led the group in prayer before the meal. The prayer finished and two lines formed as people filled their plates and dispersed throughout the house. In another room, a table was filled with beer and wine. The crowd seemed young. (Reverend Jarvis told me that the median age at both Yale Divinity and Berkeley is 26; ten years ago it was 46.) Children sprinted from room to room, chasing each other.

As I waited in line, I spoke with Matt Lindeman, who had given the sermon during the service that night. “This place is just beautiful and feels like home,” he told me. Later, as I wandered the rooms looking for a seat, Anne Thatcher, who I hadn’t yet met, offered me one. She also used the word “home” to describe the Center and praised its “warmth.”

That same house had been silent the day before when I entered the Chapel at 7:30 a.m. for morning prayer. Now the Berkeley Center brimmed with laughter.