- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Students at Trinity School for Ministry piled their coats and book bags on chairs and on the floor in the back of their small chapel in Ambridge on an early January morning and took their seats. They sang hymns, recited prayers, a creed and a confession of sin and prepared for communion. Before them, two simple banners proclaimed in Latin a traditional expression for the goal of the theological education they were seeking: Credo ut intelligam, or “I believe that I may understand.”

One might expect a low-key sermon after the climactic liturgies of Christmas and before the run-up to Easter, but the school’s new president, the Rev. Henry “Laurie” Thompson, had other ideas. Preaching on the annual celebration of the baptism of Jesus, he called it among the most important feasts of the liturgical year.

“This is not a passage for wimps,” said Rev. Thompson, but one that proclaims, among other things, Jesus’ proclamation of his mission to oppose the “forces of evil.” This is a “declaration of war,” Rev. Thompson said.

The sermon resonated with the scores of students present, as did the Anglican liturgy that included the serving of communion, reflecting the sacramental belief in the nearness of God in such simple things as bread and wine.

Students from multiple states and countries come here, attracted to a school that aims to be an “evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition” - that is, blending the piety and urgent sense of mission that characterize evangelicals with the time-tested liturgy and sacramental tradition associated with Episcopal Church and its Anglican counterpart.

“This is really the place” for that blend, said Jim Hearn, a doctoral student from California, who joined an Anglican congregation through the influence of his wife and a trip to Israel.

Now Trinity is celebrating its 40th year, and while the mission remains the same, it’s being defined in new ways. The school says it has about 285 students, either full-time, part-time or on-line.

Once formed as a renewal movement within the Episcopal Church, it still has Episcopalian students, but its students and faculty increasingly represent the new Anglican Church in North America, also headquartered in Ambridge, which split from the Episcopal Church in 2009 over liberalizing trends in the latter, including the ordination of gay bishops.

Trinity also is home now to similar groups of conservative Lutherans and Presbyterians who also broke from their larger denominations over similar issues.

“It’s for missional reasons that we’re collaborating, not economic,” said Rev. Thompson referring to other seminaries that merge to cope with declining enrollment and funds. “We have our theological discussions and dust-ups, but we’re learning from each other and that’s been rewarding.”

Rev. Thompson, a former pastor who has been on the Trinity faculty since 1997 after nearly two decades in parish ministry, succeeded the Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry in May 2016 as interim president and was named permanently to the post in December.

The seminary was formed in 1976 amid an evangelical renewal movement, using the name Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

Its mission was to provide conservative training for those wanting to go into the Episcopal ministry but believing they’d spend their seminary years on the defensive at a more liberal seminary. Trinity’s founders even avoided the word “seminary” in its title, which they felt conveyed an ivory-tower detachment. They wanted to emphasize practical training for real-life ministry, which also was why they set up shop in a struggling mill town, with warehouses as neighbors and an old A&P; supermarket as a library building.

Skeptics used to quip that the “E is silent” in its acronym, TESM, suspecting that the school’s organizers and alumni would break away from the Episcopal Church if they couldn’t turn the denomination in a more conservative direction.

The seminary’s location here was influential in how Pittsburgh became an epicenter of the Episcopal split, with a fair number of alumni and supporters serving in area parishes. Pittsburgh was one of the few places where a majority of parishes left for the Anglican denomination.

The school didn’t declare itself on the side of those leaving, and Rev. Thompson attributed a temporary enrollment dip to tensions with both sides of the dispute. While it still has students from both denominations, it is increasingly home to Anglican professors and students.

“We weren’t trying to be schismatic,” said Rev. Thompson. “Our heart’s not there. We would still love to see reunion, but not at the sacrifice of the core essentials of the faith.”

The seminary now goes by the name Trinity School for Ministry on its signs and promotional literature, even if “Episcopal” is still on its legal documents.

Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh said he still has a good relationship with the school, and some Episcopalians still study there, and not just local ones.

Brandon Wickstrom, 28, of Boise, Idaho, began studying here after he and his Episcopal bishop agreed it would be a good fit.

“I would say I’m fairly more liberal,” than many classmates, he said. “I don’t allow it to cause any distance. This is a good place.”

The seminary is still located on the same spot in Ambridge, although with so much renovation and recent construction, including an expanded studio for instructional videos, that it now actually looks like a traditional campus - complete with a little quad. The library upgrades are so thorough that you’d never confuse the church-history section with the produce aisle.

Trinity’s investment has been credited with helping boost the struggling Rust Belt city’s historic district.

“Whether it’s the students or the school itself, they’ve been there” for the city, said state Rep. Robert Matzie, D-Beaver/Allegheny, a former mayor of Ambridge.

Some of those students now come from the North American Lutheran Church, formed in 2010 in a break from the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Trinity became home base for the North American Lutheran Seminary, where students take Lutheran-specific courses as well as general ones with other Trinity students and faculty.

The Rev. Amy Schifrin, president of the Lutheran seminary, said she and others visited many theological schools before settling in Ambridge.

“Trinity, theologically, culturally, seemed to be the best match,” she said. Both churches, for example, have roots extending to the Protestant Reformation and similar, though not identical, liturgies and theology. “They agreed we could add something to their life, and they could give us a place to begin as a denominational seminary.”

Among the first students when the program started was Makayla Cook of San Antonio, Texas, now in her last year of her master of divinity program.

“Nobody knows us as the Lutherans” but just as fellow students, she said, sharing classes, chapel duties and other activities. “There’s immense unity.”

More recently, the school began offering a track for its master of divinity curriculum, in conjunction with the local Presbytery of the Alleghenies of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. That denomination was founded in 1981 and in recent years has picked up several Western Pennsylvania congregations that left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Rev. Rich Herbster, a Presbyterian minister who already had taught Greek and other subjects for several years at Trinity, is now director of the track.

“There’s very much a sense of common cause that really transcends tradition,” said Rev. Herbster.

Presbyterians may have less of a formal liturgy than Anglicans, for example, but “that’s not a drawback,” he said. “By seeing what another tradition does that’s beautiful and valuable we gain from that.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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