Challenges draw Trinity and Wycliffe closer

By Matt Gardner

As times change, two familiar seminaries are changing with them

Among the various display booths spread throughout the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre at General Synod 2019, guests and delegates passed one that bore testament to a new spirit of collaboration between two prominent Anglican seminaries in Toronto.

Having previously shared a display booth at the Toronto diocesan synod in November 2018, Trinity College and Wycliffe College agreed to do the same the following July at General Synod.  But the increased partnership between the two colleges isn’t merely symbolic.

All Anglican students at Trinity and all Anglican M. Div students at Wycliffe are now required to take a joint required course in Anglican liturgy—the first course of its kind at the schools, taught by staff members from both Trinity and Wycliffe.

Christopher Brittain, dean of divinity at Trinity, says the shared display space at General Synod was “partly to save money, but also partly to make a statement to our church.”

“It’s like, ‘No, we’re not exactly the same, but we’re not rivals and competitors who don’t recognize each other as fellow Anglicans and fellow colleagues in the life of the church.’  We did that at General Synod, and I think we’ll probably continue to do that,” Brittain says.

“We recognize that these are tough times, not only financially, but also ideologically and emotionally,” he adds. “So we’re trying to do our part to be good stewards of our resources, but also good pastoral leaders to model how we think the church should work together in these challenging times.”

Challenges facing theological education are in large measure a reflection of broader struggles facing the Anglican Church of Canada.

In recent years, Trinity College has seen a declining enrolment of students, which Brittain says is directly related to declining membership and finances in the church.

“If you have fewer Anglicans in the pews, you’re going to have fewer individuals feeling called to the ministry to serve these communities…. The decline in finances of the national church, or of the local diocese, and even local congregations, means there’s less and less money available to support theological education. So donations go down [for] Trinity College. Donations to student bursaries go down. The number of dioceses that are able to give money to their students to support them as they study is going down.

“Just like the churches are struggling with resources, increasingly theological education is struggling with financial resources and also with people.”

At Wycliffe College, Principal Stephen Andrews maintains that “our enrolments remain strong” and that the college has a “loyal network of support.”

Andrews says that Wycliffe is the largest Anglican theological college by enrolment in North America, which he attributes to serving a broad evangelical constituency. The majority of students at Wycliffe today, 60%, come from other churches and denominations, though 90% of its faculty attend Anglican churches.

For Wycliffe, some of its main challenges relate to the changing nature of theological education in general. Like Trinity and other theological schools, Wycliffe has seen a growth in online and part-time enrolment.

Since the 1970s, Wycliffe has been a member of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which sets standards for the MDiv degree. Those standards are set to change in the near future. ATS is likely to adopt new MDiv standards that will do away with a one-year residency requirement and reduce credit requirements—a change that Wycliffe views with some trepidation, since much of its education model revolves around community formation through residence and chapel life.

In response, Wycliffe has increased its efforts to find avenues for formation in a remote context. The school is currently looking at developing a “cohort” experience for part-time students living outside of Toronto, in which a group of students can come together under the supervision of a tutor.

The increase in part-time and online students marks a significant change from the dominant model of theological education in the past. For more than a century after Trinity and Wycliffe were founded, respectively in 1851 and 1877, the majority of students were expected to be “unmarried men looking for their first career” who would live in residence on campus, as Brittain describes the old model at Trinity.

Today, the student body is considerably more diverse and includes an increased number of women, non-Anglicans and international students.   At Wycliffe, women now outnumber men at the master’s level; 30% of MDiv students are non-Anglican; and 30% of the student body as a whole come from outside Canada. Trinity has also expressed a desire to recruit more non-Anglican and international students.

Meanwhile, the average age of students is trending upwards. Ten years ago at Wycliffe, the average student was in their 20s, while today they are in their 30s.  At Trinity, students are now more likely to have families and previous vocational careers and experiences.

With the changing role of the church in society and increasing diversity of the student body, many theological distinctions between Trinity and Wycliffe have receded in importance.

Traditionally, Trinity was associated with the “high church” or Anglo-Catholic tradition, and Wycliffe with “low church” or evangelical Anglicanism. Where the former would have a greater emphasis on ritual—with incense, coloured stoles and candles—the latter would have seen priests wearing black scarfs with no candles in sight.

Though residual evidence of those traditions and influences remainWycliffe tends to enrol more Pentecostal and Baptist students, while Trinity is recruiting an increasing number of Eastern Orthodox studentsovert differences have largely broken down.  

“Those ritualistic distinctions define us a lot less than they did at one time…. They once did represent deep theological disagreements about the theology of the Eucharist,” Andrews says. “But today, those distinctions are lost on a lot of people, even our clergy.”  

Brittain concurs. “[In] the Anglican Church of Canada, in general, those labels are shifting somewhat as the churches try to think about how to respond to church decline and think about responding to a largely non-churched environment,” he saysThe labels ‘high church’ and ‘low church’ don’t mean a whole lot to people, so there’s lots of rethinking.” 

Greater intermingling of traditions also extends to the Toronto School of Theology (TST), of which both Wycliffe and Trinity are members and which consists of seven colleges from different denominations at the University of Toronto. Staff members from all seven colleges meet on a regular basis, while students often take courses in different institutions.  

“When you talk about a school, it means there’s a commonality, a coming together, and it arose [at TST] out of the concern for ecumenics,” TST interim director J. Dorcas Gordon says. 

Partnerships such as that between Trinity and Wycliffe, Gordon says, often result when schools “have found a common way of moving forward.” She says that collaboration between Wycliffe and Trinity extends back to the amalgamation of their libraries in 2000.   

Andrews says that the two Anglican seminaries are looking for more ways to work together in the future.  

While there may be economies to be found in closer collaboration,” he says, I think that what motivates our collegiality at the present time is the conviction that the church is richer for having clergy trained at different institutions with different traditions, characters and emphases.

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Anglican Journal, October 2019