“Thoughtful in his arguments, willing to take a stance, and willing to admit when he’s wrong. Kind to everyone, and has the courage to be himself unapologetically.”


This comment about Paul Marcuson of Williamsburg, Virginia, was among many glowing remarks describing the winner of the 2019 SUMMA Award at SUMMA Theological Debate Camp, held July 16–25 at the School of Theology.


All campers and adult leaders vote anonymously at the end of SUMMA Camp for the youth they believe best exemplifies “speaking the truth in love,” a standard that is upheld throughout camp. The SUMMA Award winner receives a $1,000 prize, to further their education, and a trophy.


SUMMA Theological Debate Camp offers high school students, rising ninth through 12 graders, an opportunity to build their faith through intellectual channels. A debate resolution is introduced the first day of camp—this year it was “Civil disobedience is morally justified.”


A total of 45 students attended this year, hailing from 14 states across the country, the District of Columbia, and a youth who traveled from China specifically for SUMMA Camp.


Marcuson learned about SUMMA online. “My parents and I were searching for a camp experience that would help me explore my faith while maintaining a creative and intellectual focus,” he said.


Intrigued by the idea of a theological debate camp, he was most interested in “the opportunity to question my faith and so make it stronger, Marcuson said. “I had, of course, questioned some of the beliefs held in my church before attending SUMMA, but I had never developed an organized method to go about internalizing scripture. “I wanted a set of tools for reasoning my own beliefs through fact and scripture, thereby helping me to further own my faith and grow closer to God in the process.”


Marcuson remarked that, at the beginning, he felt very disorganized in his approach to the resolution. “I could see the points I wanted to make but I didn’t know how to express them, so I ended up drowning myself in research. I kept on trying to use counter arguments too early, and I really struggled trying to articulate my points. But my small group leader, Sam, did a great job helping me organize my approach. “The night before my first debate, I did something I probably should have been doing from the beginning: I prayed asking for God’s help and (surprise, surprise!) my positions started coming together.”


During the first five days of camp, students are engaged in theology lectures and seminars with college professors and members of the clergy. They learn skills in public speaking and debate and work in teams to craft their arguments for the end-of-camp tournament in which all students debate both the affirmative and negative of the resolution.


Throughout the week, students are taught to think carefully, imaginatively, and fluidly; as well as how to express themselves clearly and respectfully.


Marcuson said he came away from camp with three key discoveries. “First, I learned how to reason through moral issues while remaining true to the heart of Jesus’ teachings. I think there’s value in looking at both sides of an issue and SUMMA helped me get more comfortable doing that. Secondly, I would say SUMMA taught me how to debate both respectfully and lovingly: a discipline whose practice Dr. Keller made a central focus of the week.”


The Very Rev. Christoph Keller, founder of the program, is SUMMA’s primary lecturer in both theology and debate.


Marcuson continued, “Finally, at SUMMA, I learned about my own call to ministry, which was a major factor drawing me to the camp in the first place. SUMMA is by no means a discernment camp but it did help me come to a better understanding with my relationship with God, especially in the context of The Episcopal Church which I was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the week.”


Developing skills in critical thinking and analysis is a fundamental goal for SUMMA. Youth are equipped to thoughtfully approach issues in their own lives.


Marcuson believes this will be helpful in his work as a member of the pastoral council at the Catholic church he attends in his hometown. “There is a lot of debate that happens during our meetings,” he commented, “so, I want to bring my skills arguing truth in love to the table as well as my experience researching both sides of an issue since I think this will help combat the intolerance that unfortunately sometimes arises when we meet.”


Marcuson is a rising senior at York High School in Williamsburg; and upon graduation he plans to major in Environmental Chemistry, with a minor in theology. “From there, I hope, with God’s grace, to go to seminary and become a parish priest in The Episcopal Church,” he said.


As a camper this summer, Marcuson was already setting a fine example. Another anonymous comment from the SUMMA Award ballots described him as “kind and welcoming, and brilliant in his debate and speech—a standard we should be trying to meet as campers and Christians.”