By Father Joseph Allen, ThD
I’m walking down the hall, past the bookstore, noticing through the glass panel wall so many beautiful items – icons, incense, book covers, etc.- having just left a meeting in the library of the Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS). It was a meeting with the staff regarding some of the new and critical theological education programs. Who will teach what? Where will it fit in our curriculum? Will it be as effective in such a “school without walls?”
It gets one thinking, gets one pondering: how did all this happen? How did we get to this advanced position of offering the various “tracts” in the AHOS curriculum?
As I walk into the main lobby -offices on one side, coffee shop on the other- I run into a crowd of about 50 students on a break between classes. There are about 50 other students still meeting in another class at the Ajar Auditorium; they have not reached the point where their “break” begins. Tonight at Vespers, however, all 100+, along with about 15 faculty members, will stand together in the Chapel: “Let my prayer arise, Oh Lord, in thy sight as incense…”.
It all started 35 years ago. Thirteen students -thirteen!- made up the first class. I never thought it would be more than that. Thirteen. That’s all. Who else except those few would be interested in Orthodox -or Eastern Christian- Theology, but for various reasons did not -and now could not- attend a seminary? They had various careers: some were physicians, some CEOs of companies, some educators, some business owners, etc. But there were only thirteen. They didn’t know each other, but what they shared was a condition that prevented them from studying Orthodox Theology , until now, as a student in a serious and integrated way. How could they leave their jobs for three full years to attend seminary? How could they leave their families, their children, their home responsibilities? All thirteen shared this dilemma.
But these “students” were insistent, and they reached out: Would we be willing to teach in a “different” way, would we be willing to take the time, to expend the energy, to teach them in a “long distant” pedigogy?
By the time I pass though the student-filled lobby -between the offices and the coffee shop- I remember how many times I told myself: “Okay. Now that’s it. There can’t be too many more persons interested in studying theology this way.” But each year seemed a miracle: 70-80 new student applications would arrive. How often I would ask Registrar, Deacon Peter as the applications were coming in: “where are they all coming from?” but they came -and still are coming.
Truth be told, we got in on the bottom floor of the “electronic” education, when distance education was barely thought of as a possible mode. The computer changed it all in the last years, but thinking back on it now, it almost seems like we knew it was coming. I can say that because, even though we depend on the computer so heavily today, we weren’t there yet, i.e. thirty-five years ago. It was rather pure desire to learn what in no other way could be learned: by the dedication of the student and the appropriate response of a group of professors.
Reaching my room -past the lobby with the offices and coffee shop- I am now asking myself: “But how can I explain what the AHOS turned out to be?” The students, after reading over 13,000 pages (over three years) in the various areas of Orthodox Theology; after undertaking various projects, one each year in an ecclesiastical setting; after attending three Residency Programs at the Antiochian Village: thirty five years of this, has caused us to reach thousands of people throughout the world -all for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some students have been clergy in other non-Orthodox communions; some have other related professions; some are from all the various North American Orthodox jurisdictions; some from South Africa, Alexandria, South America, Australia, Ireland,England, Cyprus, New Zealand, etc. Some are in the Basic Theology tract; some in the Masters Degree tract; some in the Doctor of Ministry tract; some in Youth Ministry, Musicology, Iconology; still others in the Western Rite tract, or the Pastoral Counseling tract; and some in the newest PhD program.
Some students are born into an Orthodox family -Greek, Slavic, Middle Eastern, Romanian- while many others have come from non-Orthodox churches into the Faith and have found themselves thirsty to learn about it in depth. And to learn about it in depth the way they understand it, means the liturgical, historical, pastoral, etc. theology. In particular, it includes scripture, patristics, doctrine, music, worship evangelism, etc. all of which makes up the AHOS curriculum.
As I am now approaching my room, still hearing the murmur of the students in the lobby -between the offices and the coffee shop- I realize that it all takes place with a sense of timing and substance: three years, staying in one’s present home/circumstance, with expansive reading, writing and lecture. But that doesn’t take away the wonder of how 13 students, (wherever you are today?), could have grown to thousands over 35 years, willing to enter this “school without walls.” This can only be, I say to myself, the work of God’s grace through the Holy Sppirit.
I enter my room, blow my nose, wash my hands and face, and get ready for dinner -which is also a wonder! (a delicious meal!).