Commencing a New Adventure
We held a grand commencement just a few weeks ago. I haven’t checked the records, but I suspect that with more than 100 graduates crossing the podium to receive their degrees and certificates, it came close to setting or breaking any recent commencement records at LTSP. It was a day of joy, of celebration, of thanksgiving, and of beginnings.
Which is interesting, when you think of it. Because we tend to think of graduation as an ending, the final, if also celebratory, step in a long journey. But the word we choose to name this occasion is not graduation, but commencement. Which means a beginning. Yes, there is something ending, but also something beginning: a new ministry, an open future, an exciting vocation.
I think this is also true of our life together as and in The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. On June 30, we will draw to a close the 153-year history of this beloved institution and, at the exact same time, we will commence the continued and re-invigorated and never-more-important mission of LTSP in and through the United Lutheran Seminary.
When I spoke about the significance of the commencement we recently shared, I chose to call it the culminating – rather than “final,” let alone “last” — commencement of LTSP for two reasons. In part, I wanted simply to remind us that commencements are not ultimately about institutions but about the graduates. Indeed, it is the quality and caliber of our graduates that best testifies to the success, fidelity, and vitality of our mission to educate leaders for the church.
But I also chose to talk about a “culminating commencement” in order to orient us to the historic import of the coming together of the Philadelphia and Gettysburg seminaries. One hundred and fifty-four years ago, there was a significant rift in East coast, North-American Lutheranism regarding its future and, in particular, its missional stance in a growing and changing American landscape. One group of Lutherans, identified with Samuel Simon Schmucker, felt that if the Lutheran witness was to not just survive but also flourish, it needed to accommodate the cultural and theological climate and become more like the other Christian (and particularly Reformed) traditions around it. Another group, led by the Charles Porterfield Krauth, felt that heightening, rather than diminishing, the distinctiveness of the Lutheran Confessions was the key to a vibrant witness. These competing visions and commitments led to a painful rift in the church, manifested most visibly in the existence of two — and often competing — Lutheran seminaries in the same state, but also present in rival synods and congregations.
One hundred and fifty-three years later, we have no illusions that by uniting LTSP and LTSG we have “solved” what might be called “the Pennsylvania question.” Rather, we have realized that it is, finally, not a question to be answered definitively, but rather a tension to be held with courage and a mystery to enter into by faith. The tremendous diversity of LTSP that was on such magnificent display at Commencement — representing multiple Christian traditions and ethnicities — not only mirrors the world in which we live but also testifies to the reality that to be faithful to the Reformation, tradition is to be forever be in a lively conversation, ongoing navigation, and even tenacious negotiation between confessional integrity and ecumenical conversation.
Luther did not seek to start a new church but to reform the “one, holy, and catholic” church in relation to the living witness of the Gospel. To be faithful to our Lutheran roots, therefore, is by definition to commit to listening to, learning from, and supporting the evangelical insights of other Christian traditions. Many of us believe that by LTSP and LTSG coming together to form the United Lutheran Seminary, we can continue to live into our mission and charge to be a Lutheran Seminary serving an ecumenical church for the sake of the world God loves so much.
Which is a major part of the reason I am proud of the foresight and courage of the ULS Board to call as its first president the best qualified and most capable candidate. Dr. Theresa Latini is someone who stands in a tradition stemming from the Reformation and is a leader who understands, respects, and supports the Lutheran witness even as she currently makes her home in a related, even sibling, but distinct witness. The Board, I believe, has identified a leader with professional, confessional, and ecumenical integrity in order to launch ULS in the strongest fashion possible, and I look forward to a long, faithful, and successful tenure.
We are commencing a grand experiment — drawing together two historic seminaries, establishing ourselves on two distinct and important geographic locales as well as providing online education, calling a remarkable president from an ecumenical partner, and re-committing to the endeavor to educate leaders for the Christian church with unprecedented levels of financial support — all in order that we might train women and men to be faithful to Christ’s great commission to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” and anchored by Christ’s great promise: “And I am with you to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20).
It is a commencement, a beginning, a new start. It is also an act of faith and daring, and a grand adventure. For us to be successful, we will count on God’s continued grace and strength and continue to need your love, support, and prayers. I want to thank you for all you have given me during my tenure as president and also thank you in advance for doing the same for our new president and seminary.
Yours in Christ,