Weaving A New Fabric: Denominational Formation in an Ecumenical Context

By: The Rev. Dr. Alyson Huntly, Director of United Church Studies

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As we wrap up our first academic year as an officially ecumenical college, I’m sure many people are wondering about the changes and challenges that have taken place, and in particular, how denomination-specific formation fits into our new ecumenical environment. All of our students, Anglican, United, or otherwise, are learning to minister according to the needs and traditions of their respective denominations, as well as how to minster alongside other traditions in ecumenical partnership. In many ways, denominational formation has remained the same as how it was before the United Theological College joined with Dio, but with the added benefit of a denominational diversity that better represents the future (and in many places, the current reality) of the church.

Students continue to take denomination-specific courses such as United Church Polity or Anglican History and Theology, as well as learning ecumenically in theology classes at McGill. In addition, students are formed in the context of their denomination by affiliating with a community of faith throughout the program and completing a one- or two-year ministry field placement. College worship throughout the week provides additional opportunities for hands on learning and leadership development, and for our United Church students, a monthly community evening creates a space for intentional community-building in a new environment.

As the church is changing and evolving, so too theological education is becoming more adapted to different kinds of students, different learning needs, and different modes of learning. The small size of the college community means that learning is flexible, with options for full-time or part-time study, as well as distance learning. Our students come from diverse backgrounds. At the college right now, some students are taking a traditional three-year Master of Divinity. Other students with previous theology degrees from another denominational tradition are taking courses geared to prepare them for ministry in the United or Anglican church. The college also has mature students with no previous undergraduate degree, ordained ministers from other denominations, and people who intend to minister outside of either denomination but who have chosen a United Church or Anglican affiliated program. We strive to tailor the programs to individual needs and learning goals.

The college has grown and changed in many ways over the last year in order to balance ecumenical community life and denomination-specific formation. While learning the traditions of one’s own denomination is an important aspect of leadership formation, it is often the places where United Church and Anglican students cross over that provides the most valuable learning and preparation for a future in ministry. Once a week during the semester, students from both denominational streams meet together for a ministry seminar to discuss and learn about liturgical leadership in their respective traditions. These seminars are also an opportunity to compare and contrast traditions and learn from one another’s differences. Heather McCance, Director of Pastoral Studies and Field Education, has expressed how we are often better equipped to understand our own tradition when given the opportunity to contrast it with another. When a student better understands what their denominational box looks like, they are better prepared to think outside that box. These seminars help students to see their own denominations with fresh eyes, to develop a spirit of ecumenism, and to reflect on how they might push the boundaries of their own traditions.

The biggest area of change this year has been in Dio’s worship practices. The college now alternates Anglican and United Church liturgies. College chaplain, Norman Robert Boie, has also been conscientious about integrating elements of different Christian traditions from across the globe to better reflect the cultural diversity of the college’s student body. Many if not all of our graduates will minister in settings of ecumenical diversity and religious plurality, both within the congregations they serve and the wider community. We often underestimate the vast theological diversity that exists within congregations, not to mention diversity of preferences of liturgical styles and how communities seek to live their faith in the world. In addition, many churches nowadays have shared ministry agreements across denominational lines. The more our students experience and gain comfort with and appreciation for a rich variety of traditions, the better equipped they are for congregational ministry. While sometimes a challenging compromise, the ecumenical worship practices at Dio are ultimately an accurate reflection of how students will experience ministry once they graduate (challenging compromises and all!)

Looking back over the past two semesters, I am certainly proud of all that has been accomplished, and grateful for the unexpected gifts that have arisen from new challenges. There is immense hope in this new college configuration, and I look forward to seeing the fruits it bears for the future of the church.