First you were known as the man of the hour in Rome as Newman was made a saint, and now, closer to home, you are the new academic dean. How does it feel to add this to your already busy life as professor of Christian history, director of ADP, and co-author of the Research Summary by the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation?
Yes, a lot has happened since October 2019, when I lectured about John Henry Newman to cardinals and ambassadors at Vatican City and attended his canonization ceremony sitting thirty feet from the Pope! Those were wonderful days. Since then so much has happened in the world, a lot of which fills us with a sense of loss or fear. I took on the position of academic dean at the time of implementing the university's Covid-19 policies in the classroom and the necessary shifts in technology, to which the students and faculty have responded with dedication and flexibility. Of course, Newman was once a professor before he became an academic administrator at the Catholic University of Dublin, so my knowledge of him may prove helpful in my new position!
Let's talk about your role as academic dean. Can you tell us about the work that has gone into the restructuring of the Master of Divinity core curriculum and what was the impetus for this change?
The change in curriculum began with a lot of listening. We heard from focus groups with School of Theology alums about what had prepared them well for ministry, as well as what was lacking from the curriculum; the fact that much of what we were already doing has been retained in the new curriculum is a sign that we were doing many things right in forming priests to lead worship and serve their parishioners according to the standards of the Book of Common Prayer. We heard from faculty that they wanted to teach more electives, in order to supplement our robust core with an opportunity for students to go deeper in particular areas. We also learned from some bishops that they wanted students to have more field education and leadership training, so we now require three semesters of contextual education in parish and classroom. The committee who drew up the new curriculum was tasked with producing a unified whole from all these suggestions by figuring out the overall curricular goals. As a member of that committee, I enjoyed the process and am pleased with what we achieved.
What do you see as the School of Theology's strengths in theological education that stands out against other institutions?
The School of Theology strikes me as a representative of the broad (I prefer the term Catholic) middle of The Episcopal Church. We have (I would argue) a stellar faculty all of whom are committed to serving the Church, some by pushing the Church to change in various ways and others by pushing the Church to go deeper into the tradition. Personally, I don't see those two things as contradictory, but rather as in a creative tension that will benefit the students who come here.
In your opinion, has the onset of Covid-19 restrictions helped or hindered in the education of future priests?
I have found Covid-19 exhausting and scary, as I expect all of us have. But in the sphere of theological education some good has come of it. We have adapted to use available technology and can see the benefits of inviting an expert class who lives in another state—or another country—to join us remotely. We have also tried (and sometimes failed) to discover new ways to be together as Church without gathering for Eucharist, new ways to be intimate with members of the community without infringing on social distance. Our liturgy professor reports that students have “jumped in” to discussions of how to acknowledge God’s presence in the sacraments even as we are absent from those sacraments, although in my opinion virtual liturgy is no substitute for the real thing. My dear departed friend Bishop James White, T’20, reminded me as he was dying (not from Covid) how much he relied on the prayers of the Church catholic when he could not risk venturing anywhere to receive the Eucharist. We now rely on his prayers among the Communion of Saints to help the Church through this pandemic.
The Roberson Project's work has certainly made its way into the religious media, starting with Hannah Pommersheim and Kellan Day's project with Confederate symbols to the most recent announcement by the Board of Regents. Can you give us a little background on how that project began and what it has accomplished so far? Also, how our seminarians are involved?
Former seminarians Hannah Pommersheim, T’19, and Kellan Day, T’19, have been leaders on the Roberson Project, and I owe it to their invitation that I joined the working group in the first place. The Project's working group is a body of students, faculty and staff from across the university who are facing up to Sewanee's history in order to effect change in the present and make the place better in the future. A number of seminarians are on the working group, transitioning on and off with every matriculation and commencement. We are a racially diverse group and come from different academic fields. I am one of a handful of history professors on the Project working group, most of whom teach at the college. Bishop James Tengatenga is a fellow member on the working group and he is a wonderful voice of encouragement to look beyond Sewanee and the U.S.A. to other instances of slavery and racial injustice. Some of us—faculty and seminarians—work on scholarship relating to the Project, others convene student groups, still others work on how the campus can better acknowledge the sins of its past and shape a more welcoming Sewanee.
The Project has been fortunate to have the support of the university administration in these endeavors. I was delighted when the regents asked to learn more about the research the Roberson Project has been doing, as the basis for the statement they were preparing. Dr. Woody Register (Project director) and I addressed the regents in July, and we later produced a Research Summary of the Project findings that was included with the Regents’ statement and Vice-Chancellor Brigety's powerful letter.
Can you tell us what role the School of Theology and more importantly, The Episcopal Church, has played based on the research?
My recent research has been shedding light on the re-founding of the University of the South after the Civil War, focusing particularly on Bishop Quintard as well as race in The Episcopal Church in the late 19th century. There is also a connection here to the wider Anglican Communion through Quintard's attendance at the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 and subsequent fundraising mission around Britain. I was due to give a lecture on the subject in London before Covid shut down that opportunity, so it was really good to be able to present some of my findings to the regents instead. I expect this topic to be the last chapter of a book I am writing about the Oxford Movement, because there are many connections between that theological movement and the refounding of Sewanee. Enter John Henry Newman again, who was a great inspiration for Bishop Quintard's theology!
What projects are in the queue for the Project in the near future?
My hope is that Hannah and Kellan's workshop on what to do with Confederate symbols in parishes might become a component of the seminary curriculum, and that Sewanee's truth-telling about its troubled past might make it a place to which the wider Church can come to address racial injustice or obtain resources to do so. Dr. Register, Dr. Jody Allen, and I taught such a class during the summer for clergy pursuing a S.T.M. or D.Min. in the Advanced Degrees Program that could also be a pilot for how Sewanee might be helpful to parishes across the Church.
One of the things we are researching is the names of those whom the founding bishops held in bondage, which opens the possibility of tracing their descendants. Such research is naturally leading to questions of apology and restitution—or to put it theologically, confession and penance. The Church should be well equipped to speak to such matters, and I am gratified that folks in the secular disciplines of the university realize that we at the School of Theology have much to contribute.
Is there perhaps something that you would like to see happen with the University or the Church about reparations or reconciliations? What would you hope for about how this research will assist in that?
The University of the South—like The Episcopal Church—has a long history in which white leaders think they know what’s best for African Americans. I think the first thing for the Roberson Project team to do is to sit down with the descendants of those who were enslaved by our white leaders and hear what those descendants would like the university to do. Those of us who are white need to begin by listening, and let's see where we go from there.
Video: You can watch King's sermon delivered on Oct. 7, the date The School of Theology commemorates the resignation of the faculty protesting the lack of integration in 1952 by the University of the South, here.
Update: King just recorded a prayer of repentance that he wrote that will be part a National Prayer Service being developed by the Office of the Presiding Bishop and the Washington National Cathedral that will take place on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.