Tuesday, October 01, 2013

What It Means to be an Episcopal School

Malcolm Lester 
The question was recently posed to me and two other heads of Episcopal schools. Our guest—a person very familiar with Episcopal churches—was smart enough to discern that parishes and schools are not the same, as each has a different mission, with one often rooted in theology (churches) and the other largely rooted in tradition (schools). Therefore, he wondered:

“What does it mean to be an Episcopal School?”

We had many years of Episcopal school experience between us, yet his question momentarily stymied us. Borrowing a line from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we tried to say that we know an Episcopal school when we see it—or, rather, when we experience it, for there is something palpable about the feel of an Episcopal school. 

After some discussion, I believe we got close to satisfactorily answering him. It was a great question—a profound one, even. And one which merits further exploration here.

Just days after that conversation, I attended the National Association of Episcopal Schools conference for Heads of School. NAES is a great resource for schools, school boards, vestries and rectors. At this program, we met the bishop of the state where the conference was held. His first question was to ask the attendees to write five attributes of Episcopal schools on an index card.

I wrote, “Warm, inclusive, diverse, welcoming, open.” My five words had a central theme—essentially, warmth and love—founded on my experience that Episcopal schools are welcoming of people of all faiths and backgrounds. Our schools are incredibly diverse, and there are “many paths to God,” as one of the speakers said last week. Yet it is important to note that these schools, including mine, also honor our Episcopal tradition and identity.

After telling us that he often asks that question to school chaplains and heads of school, the bishop then showed us a word cloud of the high-frequency words that have resulted from that exercise. A few of my adjectives were listed prominently on his clouds, and others, like “worship,” “tradition,” and “bishop” (which pleased him!), were also listed.

So what is an Episcopal school? Well, I am borrowing liberally here from NAES. The country’s nearly 1,200 Episcopal schools and early childhood programs reflect great variety, but some commonalities include:
  • Chapel, worship, and tradition (rather than doctrine).
  • A commitment to equity, justice, and service.
  • An emphasis on holistic education, in which “matters of the spirit are honored…and the physical, mental, and emotional health of all are supported and nurtured” (NAES).
  • The belief that our young people are all children of God, that every child is uniquely gifted, and that each child is called forth to use those gifts in the world.
NAES publishes a slim pamphlet that originated from Oregon Episcopal School. The brochure’s conclusion is a perfect way to end here:

“An Episcopal school is founded on love…Love for students, for their value as children of God, for their unique gifts, must undergird everything we do. We must act out of love, teach love, model love, and love one another in our community above all else, or all else will be meaningless.”

That is what it means to be an Episcopal school.

Malcolm Lester is the Head of School of Grace Episcopal Day School, serving children from preschool through fifth grade, in Kensington, Maryland. You may follow him on Twitter at @MalcolmatGrace.