Today, the main way a man becomes an Orthodox priest in America is by completing an M.Div. program at an Orthodox seminary, the biggest being Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, and St. Tikhon’s. All of these seminaries opened at the same time — 1938-39 — and initially, they didn’t offer master’s degrees, instead awarding bachelor’s degrees to their students, who tended to be in their early 20s. These early seminaries were affiliated with the Greek Archdiocese (Holy Cross) and the Russian Metropolia (today’s OCA, which had both St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s). The other big jurisdiction in America, the Antiochian Archdiocese, has never had its own seminary.
While aspiring Antiochian priests have long attended the Greek and OCA seminaries, it wasn’t always that way. Prior to the modern seminary movement, a young Antiochian man called to the priesthood would be apprenticed to and trained by an experienced priest. In 1944, Metropolitan Antony Bashir decided to enhance this process by creating a “Preceptorial Council,” which would oversee the training and theological education of prospective American-born clergymen.
In the chaos and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, it is, at the moment, somewhat unclear when our seminarians will be able to return to their campuses. And that’s even before taking into account the long-term economic viability of the seminary model itself, especially given that the two biggest seminaries (Holy Cross and St. Vladimir’s) are located in two of the most expensive localities in the country (Brookline, Mass. and Westchester County, NY). In light of this, Metropolitan Antony Bashir’s older alternative to seminary training may be worth another look.
The original system, which Metropolitan Antony enhanced in 1944, provided for the following:
- A divinity student should complete a baccalaureate course in a reputable secular college.
- The student should prepare himself for a secular profession “in order to be self-supporting at need, and in order also to serve the Church with the specialized knowledge so acquired.”
- While in college, and for as long as necessary afterward, the student should study theological subjects under the direction of one or more experienced priests appointed as “preceptors.”
- As soon as the young man had completed his education and either got married or decided to remain celibate for life, he should be ordained so that he could begin his apprenticeship.
- Men with an aptitude for scholarship would be strongly encouraged, and if possible assisted financially, to pursue doctoral studies.
This model had some flexibility, able to be adjusted by the Archdiocese based on the man’s age, amount of schooling already completed, and the urgency of need for his services.
In 1944, Metropolitan Antony took this basic structure and created a “Preceptorial Council,” which would oversee the whole process, recommending candidates for ordination, appointing students to preceptors, and recruiting preceptors to focus on specific subjects where they had expertise. One of the Preceptorial Council’s founding documents summed up its purpose: “Briefly stated, the Council’s plan of operation is founded solidly upon a realistic recognition of the fact that our resources are small and weak; and upon a fixed resolution to use all our knowledge and ingenuity to make the best of what we have.”
Given that you’ve almost certainly never heard of the Preceptorial Council, it goes without saying that the thing didn’t last. In the end, most Antiochian clergy ended up attending the Greek and OCA seminaries, which they do to this day. I don’t know exactly when the Preceptorial Council died out, but elements of it (if not a direct connection) can be seen in the Antiochian House of Studies, which was created by Metropolitan Philip Saliba — Metropolitan Antony’s successor — in 1980. While the House of Studies mostly trains deacons via a correspondence program, it has also produced many priests in its 40 years of existence. Whereas the Preceptorial Council focused on college-age young men, the House of Studies and other jurisdictional distance learning programs generally cater to older students who have established careers. Significantly, these modern distance learning programs generally do not assume that the student will go on to serve a formal apprenticeship under an experienced priest. And most graduates of these programs don’t end up shepherding their own flocks, instead mostly serving as deacons or attached priests to their parishes.
There are good reasons why the seminary model has lasted for 70-plus years — but then, inertia is also a powerful force. Perhaps now could be an appropriate time to give some thought to the old Antiochian model, which is as sort of hybrid of the seminary M.Div. track and the distance learning programs that are offered to “late vocations” people — perhaps a combination of online academic courses (offered by the existing seminary faculty, if desired), coupled with mentorship by experienced local clergy appointed by their hierarch and paid a stipend for their efforts. Students could work out of local parish offices, assisting the clergy and undertaking projects such as adult education classes and participation in parish council meetings. With daily hands-on experience in parish administration, these up-and-coming clergymen would learn firsthand how to lead a local Orthodox community.
What are the goals of seminary education for prospective priests? What are we trying to achieve? As I see it, it’s something along the lines of this (in no particular order):
- theological education
- liturgical training
- preparing men to be parish priests
- preparing their families
- spiritual formation
- fostering peer relationships
- fostering cross-jurisdictional relationships
The current seminary model is pretty good at some of those things, and maybe not so perfect at others. Some version of the old Antiochian model — which might be a practical necessity for at least the Fall 2020 semester anyway — would have its own strengths and weaknesses. Two of the biggest weaknesses would likely be in the areas of peer and cross-jurisdictional relationships, but this could be mitigated by gathering students and their families in person for extended periods of time in the summer — something that’s already done, on some level, in many of the “late vocations” programs.
Maybe this model would work; maybe it wouldn’t, for one reason or another. Regardless, the COVID-19 crisis may force such an experiment upon us. If schools are not allowed to open for in-person classes in the Fall 2020 semester — a very real possibility — our jurisdictions and seminaries may have little choice but to try out an approach similar to the one described here. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.