Father Ryan Bennett is attending the General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York City where he is studying with the support and encouragement of the Australian Province.
I completed my ministry as parish priest of Springmount (Creswick) at Epiphany on 6 January. Following five very satisfying years as a parish priest, I had been considering returning to full-time study. Over the previous two years I had visited GTS on two occasions to explore the possibility of completing the Master of Theology program in Spirituality and Spiritual Direction. There had been a long tradition of Australians undertaking post-graduate studies at GTS since the early 1960s, including former Primate Bishop Peter Carnley who had been a distinguished visiting Professor of Systematic Theology.
The Spirituality Centre and faculty at GTS have an internationally recognised reputation and my course includes students from five different countries. One of which, Fumiko, from Tokyo, has interpreted Michael Lapsley’s writings and most recent book into Japanese.
After being farewelled by members of SSM in Melbourne on the evening before I flew out of Melbourne for New York was a significant moment for me. Having turned 40 in October, I was looking at this experience through the lens of the ‘two halves’ of life. Inside this half I was in the fortunate position to have the opportunity to undertake this unique experience of both studying and working in New York.
Arriving in New York on a balmy five-degree day in January provided me with a rather ‘fresh’ welcome to the city. The previous summer, Father Jonathan Ewer SSM, had introduced me to Father Graeme Napier who was about to become the Rector of Saint John in the Village parish in the iconic Greenwich Village. Jonathan met Graeme whilst he served as the Succentor of Westminster Abbey, and prior to this appointment, served as Precentor of St. George’s Cathedral in Perth and earlier as assistant priest of Christ Church, Saint Lawrence in Sydney where he knew former Saint Michael’s House alumnus, Father Austin Day.
Graeme had invited me to live in the ‘close’ at Saint John’s parish, just five blocks from GTS! Returning to full study was quite a change, along with adapting to living in a new city and new country! I enrolled in five subjects of the Master’s program: Introduction to Christian Spirituality, Supervision for Spiritual Directors, Congregational Spiritual Direction, Spiritual Direction Practicum and Leading Retreats and Quiet Days from a Theological Perspective. My focus next semester will be centred on Biblical Studies and Systematics.
The academic faculty of GST draws a varied group of both lay and ordained staff who are referred to as ‘Professor’. The American curriculum has a strong focus of reading-based courses and I was soon reading two-to-three books a week across the five subjects.
There are presently 50 students enrolled at GTS and the group includes both ordination candidates and private students. These students come from across the country including diocese such as South West Florida, Kansas, Oregon, New York and New Jersey. The American church, like the Church of England, is experiencing a rise in younger people in their 20s and 30s offering for Ordination. In September, which is known as the Fall or opening term, there will be 22 new students enrolled in the 2019/2020 class.
Each day is framed by Morning and Evening Prayer in the historic Chapel of the Good Shepherd and includes a daily Eucharist. The offices are sung, including the Anglican chant for the psalms, and the senior students lead the offices along with the academic staff. The director of Music at Trinity Church, Wall Street leads a Master Class each week in teaching students to sing the office as well as voice production in leading worship. The staff share the preaching at each Eucharist across all faculties, so we hear varied voices from a broad range of theological disciplines.
There is a strong emphasis on community life as being a focal point of formation for ordained ministry, and this includes all students eating together in the Refectory each day. This past semester, I lead an initiative to introduce a weekly lunchtime tutorial to give students a further opportunity to engage in questions with their Professors over lunch following classes. Each student is assigned to an ‘advisory’ group, which meets each week. The purpose of the advisory group is to give students the opportunity to meet and discuss various questions arising within our programs as well as share our individual experience of church life, parish placements and the formation program.
Earlier this month, I undertook an Anti-Racism Training course, which is an initiative of the diocese of New York. This was a very informative experience for me along with the other 20 people attending, including both ordained and lay people from across the diocese. The Episcopal Church nationally believes it has a responsibility to educate its people about issues of race. It was confronting to see how racism can be more deeply rooted within both communities and the human psyche than we care to admit.
As you may be aware, the Episcopal Church of the United States is one of the smaller mainline denominations, but through factors related to both history and position it still carries a significant public voice. Today, about half of all Episcopalians have come from other denominations, with many saying this is related to the Episcopalian Church’s stance on many social and theological issues, as well as their worship.
Generally speaking, a regular commitment to church life is still commonplace, though this is changing, especially across the mainstream denominations. Long term the church in the US faces many of the same challenges for the church in Australia. Recently, I was invited to a gathering of the Compass Rose Society (CRS), a worldwide organisation that supports the work of the Anglican Communion. Former Secretary General to the Communion, the Revd Canon John Peterson and CRS board member was pleased to learn that SSM was supporting one of its members to undertake further studies at GTS. A long-time friend of Father Gilbert SSM from St George’s College Jerusalem days, John reflected on Gilbert’s distinctive theological capacity, which he believes was a great gift to the church. He paid tribute to SSM’s engaging approach to theological enquiry as well as many pertinent social and cultural issues. Gilbert was Godfather to one of the two Palestinian daughters John and his wife adopted during that time. He laughed as he shared the story of having to tentatively ask Margaret Dewey to convert the College library index from the existing Dewey Decimal system!
He is still involved in the life of St. George’s College, Jerusalem, and asked if the Society would consider being involved in supporting the work of the College into the future.
Working at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue brings another experience to my life in Manhattan. I serve as an Assistant Priest in a part-time capacity among a group of five able and gifted others, including the Rector. I met the Rector, Father Carl Turner and his wife Alison, who is also ordained, on a previous visit to New York. Alison had just completed her postgraduate course at GTS. Originally both from the UK, Carl had a long association with SSM in Durham where he knew Father Robert Stretton SSM who preached at his first mass. The church is known in New York both for its substantial building nestled on Fifth Avenue as well as its English choral tradition. There are 17 masses, including three masses each day throughout the week along with Choral Evensong each day. I assist with the pastoral ministry of the parish as well as work on developing a Spirituality Program within the parish based on my studies at GTS.
During Holy Week and Easter, our visiting preacher was Bishop Richard Chartres, former Bishop of London, along with ‘home-grown’, the Rev’d Elaine Farmer from Canberra. Elaine’s husband Bill was Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and High Commissioner to PNG. Elaine remembers fondly helping plant the garden at St Mary in the Valley parish, Caldwell in Canberra when the parish was being established with Father Christopher Myers SSM as parish priest.
Studies will begin again in September and during the summer I will work three-quarters of my time at Saint Thomas and assist from time to time at Saint John in the Village. In the next few weeks, ordinations are taking place of recent graduates and I look forward to visiting neighbouring dioceses and supporting my fellow students who are to be ordained.
I ask that you continue to pray for me as I continue to pray for each of you. Together we serve God’s Sacred Mission in the doing of God’s work!
Father Ryan Bennett