Seminary formation begins in chapel
Seminary formation begins in chapel

COTT chapel

In a typical week at the College of the Transfiguration (COTT), an Anglican seminary in South Africa, the community spends between fourteen and sixteen hours per week in chapel. Every weekday begins at 6:45 a.m. with thirty minutes of silent meditation; if students or faculty arrive after the bell rings, they retreat to their rooms or other spaces to be in silence by themselves.

Meditation is followed by Morning Prayer or Eucharist and then breakfast. Also scheduled are daily noonday, a Wednesday noon Eucharist, and daily Evening Prayer or Eucharist; each day ends with Compline at 9 p.m. and compulsory silence. Worship sets the rhythm of the community and provides the ethos of the college.

During a recent visit to Virginia Seminary, Stanley Hauerwas, a noted ethicist and theologian at Duke University, talked to students about seminary education. Formation, he said, distinguished seminaries from other postgraduate institutions. The most important element in formation, he added, was chapel—worshiping regularly, often, and as a community.

In South Africa, sometimes my faculty colleagues chafed at required attendance at chapel. Tasks never seemed to get completed before the bell summoning the community began ringing fifteen minutes before each service.

During COTT’s orientation, some students were visibly shaken by the news of required hours in chapel. Others, who thought all of seminary life would occur in the chapel, were equally appalled at the number or hours spent each day in classes.

Soon, however, the rhythm of the schedule accommodated both ends of the spectrum. Almost every student I talked to described chapel as the most important part of his or her seminary experience.

Sometimes sermons and homilies at COTT were stirring, and the music often made our hearts soar. But being a part of the worshiping community and hearing the familiar words of the liturgy had a power of their own.

Because each person had an assigned seat, we knew if someone was ill or just missing in action. During the passing of the peace at Eucharist, we could look each other in the eye to see if life was good, indifferent, or troublesome. There were always a few students and faculty who stayed in their seats after others filed out silently, spending just a moment more in prayer.

On returning to Virginia Seminary, I have not been as faithful in my chapel attendance. My commute is complicated by heavy traffic, and I get caught up in work after I am on campus. The ding from my computer calendar is not as compelling as a ringing bell, and no one misses me if I am not there.

There is no magic formula for the number of hours students need to spend at chapel in order for formation to happen. At VTS, students set their own schedules within guidelines that require weekday attendance at one worship service and at the community Eucharist on Wednesdays.

If Stanley Hauerwas has it right, each person in a seminary community should always be assessing the role of chapel in the midst of busy schedules and conflicting demands on time. Like praying the hours, chapel attendance can add order to an unfocused life, soothing rough edges, as worshipers learn to leave stress at the door.

Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum), a VTS instructor and CMT staff member, spent last year teaching at the College of the Transfiguration in South Africa.

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