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Proof that There is No New Thing Under the Sun

Few readers of the English Churchman would doubt the truthfulness of the biblical proverb from Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is no new thing under the sun”.  What follows is a personal insight offered to the publication from the author of the following letter, The Revd Dr Paul F.M. Zahl.  He is the former Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama and Dean President of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.   Zahl earned his PhD from the University of Tubingen.  Before that, he started seminary training at his undergraduate alma mater, Harvard College.

His time at Harvard Divinity School was eye-opening.  This letter, written forty-eight years ago, explains how far back that unorthodox group-think has been going on at major academic institutions.  Dr Zahl kindly provided the letter for our readers from which to learn.  As you will read, a more Christian preparation for parochial ministry was readily available for Anglicans on the British side of the Atlantic.

The letter, written in August 1973, is addressed to Dean Krister Stendahl, then Dean of the Harvard Divinity School.  Stendahl was a Pauline theologian and future Bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden.  Zahl was serving a parish placement at St Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC when he wrote.

“Dear Dean Stendahl:

“You will recall that you were a member of my Rockefeller Committee some eighteen months ago, and that I entered Harvard Divinity School this past February.  At the present time, I have chosen to withdraw from the Divinity School, in order to continue studies for the ministry elsewhere; and I feel strongly that you should be aware of my reasons for withdrawing.

“In my own view, Harvard is true neither to its commitment to preparing students for the ministry, nor, more significantly, to teaching the Gospel.  In fact, the atmosphere of recent years has become anti-Christian.  You understand, I hope, that I am not speaking as a religious fundamentalist, for I graduated from Harvard College, magna cum laude, in “Hellenism & Christian Origins”; and have studied at length under the close supervision of Professors George H. Williams, Dieter George, Zeph Stewart, and Helmut Kloster.  Nevertheless, my vocational goal is parish ministry, and the project of training for that ministry has been frustrated at Harvard.

“It is appropriate to be specific here.  It seems that factionalism is encouraged at Harvard, particularly regarding the issue of women, sadly and vociferously overblown; and of ethnic minorities.  Such things as as the establishment of teaching positions open only to women, and of academic units in “Black theology” appear to encourage division, rather than union.

“Curiously, the other side of this coin is the fact that certain common assumptions seen to be held intensely and universally among the students, especially assumptions of theological scepticism for its own sake and of left-wing political ideology.  Certainly in the area of politics, the homogeneity of student/faculty opinion has become oppressive.

“As soon as one leaves the Divinity School, one finds a more representative view.  This fact of HDS parochialism becomes distressingly evident here in Washington, where there is always a broad exposure of opinion and thought.  Socialistic and Marxist perspectives on society, for example, are so generally taken for granted at the Divinity School as to make it virtually impossible for someone to express an alternative position or positions.

“I do not speak, by the way, as one who is deeply involved or interested in political issues; my main interest is in the parish.  The point is that political matters at HDS have often obscured its primary reason for being, to serve the Christian community as an institution for preparing Christian ministers and Christian thinkers.

“After much prayer and careful thought, my own response is to prepare for the ministry elsewhere.  There are other situations where the emphasis is Christ-centered, and where rigid uniformity of thinking , within Harvard’s peculiar cast of theological doubt and ambivalence, is not the rule.  

“What saddens me more than any other single observation is Harvard Divinity’s unwillingness to take her stand as an institution for teaching the Gospel, fore presenting the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  This is the centre of the problem, for where Christ is, there is always life; but where the effort is not made to know Him and receive Him, there is aridity and narrowness.

 “ …Then parish experience is one that is fill with such promise for all of us.  Our battle is to be fought out in parishes over the coming years.  Thus it is that I feel distressed that Harvard Divinity School is reneging on its role in the battle, by fostering a by now outdated political activism, as well as divisive activities on the part of special interest groups.

“Next month, I will begin two-years’ study at St John’s Theological College, in Nottingham, England.  This is an Anglican seminary, and the opportunity there has the full  sponsorship of my Diocese.  I will continue to be in touch with George Williams, who has always been an inspiration and a light at Harvard.

“With best wishes, I remain, yours faithfully, Paul F. M. Zahl”.

Now retired, Zahl is the author of ten books.  His most recent is:  Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook of Hope for Boomers.  His work, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, was important to many during the great upheaval in the US Episcopal Church in the early years of the Anglican realignment.