When I try to speak about this last year, my third in The Seattle School’s MDiv program, it starts out like a joke: “A Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Quaker, a Mennonite, a Church of Christ…er, a Reformed Protestant, a Baptist, a Disciple of Christ, and a Free Churcher walk into a bar.” Except there’s no punchline; that’s just a normal outing for me and my friends in our MDiv cohort.
One of the most interesting—and I think most overlooked—aspects of getting a Master of Divinity degree from The Seattle School is that we are a multidenominational institution that attracts students who are from (and who are seeking ordination with) a whole host of denominations. I, for one, came into this program as a “nondenom;” now I would say I’m a Mennonite/Anabaptist with Episcopalian sympathies and a deep love for Eastern Orthodox theology. (I’m not sure what that makes me—other than excited for what’s next.) We are future pastors headed into a wide swath of the religious geography of the U.S., and thus we are constantly running headlong into each other. Sometimes it’s a hug, and sometimes it hurts; it’s usually great, often frustrating, and always beneficial. Much of this is due to the nature of our education at The Seattle School and the many voices to which we are exposed—both in the writings of published theologians and in the dialogue we have with one another.
The third year of the program is the most practical and hands-on. We are in internships, we participate in communion together, and we meet weekly for MDiv Practicum (“a practical section of a course of study; from late Latin, neuter of practicus, ‘practical.’”). The year is a chance to explore and practice how we pastor, given the particularity of our own stories and the different church traditions we find ourselves located. For my cohort that often meant figuring out how to navigate our differences on such sacred ground as the Eucharist—or “the Lord’s Supper”, or “the Breaking of Bread,” or “Mass,” or “Blessed Sacrament,” or “Divine Liturgy,” or “Holy Communion,” or simply “communion.” What do we even call it?! In fact, one week I and two classmates, also dear friends, spent hours—like, multiple hours—wrestling about how we would preside over the Eucharist together. Honestly, I think if the conversations had been in person rather than mostly online, there would have been more than just figurative wrestling going on. Yet we found a way to come together, hold our differences, and lead our fellow students.
And now, beginning my fourth and final year, I find myself immensely grateful for that third year and the ecclesiological diversity I experienced. When you sit next to a Lutheran, for instance, or receive the Bread and Cup from an Episcopalian, you cannot simply discount some abstracted theological view. You are confronted with flesh and bone: a face, a friend, a very smart and critical-thinking pastor with whom you may differ—and sometimes more strongly than you ever realized. When you stand across from a Friend (in the “Friends Church” sense) or practice pastoral counseling with a Disciple (in the “of Christ” sorta way), you discover a grace you did not know you knew, to use poet Christian Wiman’s phrase, as we discover the river from which we came, all of us, despite our various streams.
At the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he appeals “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He then goes on to say that they are quarreling and saying ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ etc. and to stop it. I agree with the general sentiment and idea of the Apostle, but if I were to write the epistle for my cohort, I would update his words slightly:
Now I affirm to you all, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we will never be in full agreement and that there will always be divisions among us, but that we still through grace are united in the same mind and the same purpose. For I have seen and experienced the quarrels among us, my brothers and sisters, and so too the beauty and goodness we’ve found in our differences. What I mean is that each of us says, “I belong to the Anabaptists,” or “I belong to the PCUSA,” or “I belong to a Free Church.” And I thank God for that! As at Pentecost, we are given particular languages with which to express the same grace and love of God through Jesus, because a diverse world requires that particularity of expression. Bless our disagreements and praise God for our divisions, for it is in the diversity of our practices that we together climb to the heights of God’s surprising goodness, and in the struggle and the dissonance that we enter further into the depths of God’s mercy.
May it ever be so.