Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dispatch from China: Seminary Life

By Catherine Owens

EDS Travel Seminar at East China Theological Seminary
It’s Friday, May 25, and we are having lunch in the cafeteria with the students at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. This is not an orchestrated banquet. The table has mismatched jars of what seem to be the three basic condiments in this part of China—a red oil-based chili sauce, soy sauce, and strong dark vinegar. Many of the students bring their own dishes, often made of metal, which they wash themselves, and all the students at my table had brought small metal boxes containing wet wash cloths that they use to clean their hands before and after eating rather than napkins. Even in fancy restaurants you always get a packet containing a wet wipe for your hands as well as a napkin. As visitors we were brought compartmented tin trays containing the same food the students were eating: rice, a tofu/vegetable mix, a bowl of broth, stir fried greens, and some chicken (I think we probably got more chicken than they did). I thought it was very good for school food.

The students hadn’t been warned we were coming, and I felt a bit sorry for the students at the table that Susan Taylor and I joined. We had been told that all the students spoke English, and apparently some were quite fluent, but the man and two women at our table didn’t speak much (although certainly more than my Mandarin!) We struggled to communicate even a little. If Pui Lan hadn’t joined us and translated it would have become very awkward very quickly.
A little bit of background, China offers three levels of theological education. Nanjing Union is the national seminary. It offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Five regional seminaries, like the East China Theological Seminary we visited on Tuesday, offer certificates and are closer to a specialized liberal arts college education than what we think of as higher theological education. Then there are provincial seminaries and bible schools (we won’t have a chance to visit one of those). The students at our table had received their certificates from regional seminaries and are spending two years at Nanjing to get their Bachelor’s degrees. They will go back to their home areas and work as evangelists for several years before ordination even becomes a possibility. (Evangelism is huge in China, and worth a whole blog on its own!) 
In some ways we have much in common. One woman had a small child and was struggling with the same issues of career and motherhood that many of us do. They have to pay for their meals over and above tuition, which is 5,000 yuans (US$800), and had meal cards just like we do (I wish I had brought mine so we could compare). We study many of the same subjects, although I think they emphasize Bible studies more than we do. They told us that New Testament studies are much more popular than Hebrew Scripture—the latter is not considered to be as relevant or interesting. We even read some of the same texts. The students at Gale Yee’s table were studying the book of Judges and actually had her book Judges and Method in front of them. They were delighted to meet her! During our tour of the library I went straight to the section on the Gospel of Mark and I told the students at our table I found the same texts there that Larry Wills assigned in his class. The Nanjing library isn’t bad, with fairly large Chinese language and foreign language collections, although the English language books at least are of very uneven quality. The regional East China Seminary’s modern collection in any language is quite small, although they have an interesting collection of older books that were rescued from destruction in the Cultural Revolution.
Like us, these students have regular chapel worship. At East China regional they have morning prayer every day and at Nanjing they have morning prayer Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and evening prayer every day. In both the students sit in assigned areas with their classes, and I got the sense that chapel worship is mandatory.
All of the students at the regional seminaries are young, and most at the national seminary are as well. We learned that only last year did Nanjing remove the age limit of 30 for admission to the Bachelor’s program and 35 for the Masters. Some students at the regional seminary commute—the seminary has a special part time program that offers a reduced level of education but does not require full time residence. All of the students at Nanjing are residents in one of two dormitories, one for men and one for women. Undergraduates live four to a room. Graduates get to live only (only!) three to a room. Despite the heat in Nanjing, only the building for the visiting foreign faculty is air-conditioned.
The students at both levels of seminary don’t have field education placements like we do, instead, in the summer they go back and work at their own church. With the exception of some of the graduates of Nanjing who will become teachers, all will work in churches. The regional seminary graduates tend to go back either to their own church or to a church close to their own church. Nanjing Union holds a kind of job fair in which representatives of churches all over China can come and meet students to try to recruit them. Every graduate of both knows they will have a job. They don’t have any kind of chaplaincies or other career paths. There is such a lack of trained leaders that the churches need all of them. One of the young women at our table, who comes from a rural part of central China, told us that there are so few ordained ministers that many rural churches only have communion once a year.
Perhaps most striking to me, though, is the fact that all of these students are sent from their home church. You can’t simply apply, as I did. The institutional church controls access. I believe with all my heart that higher theological education should be available to everyone. I also recognize that the openness of institutions like EDS to people like me is a relatively new development in a country where Christianity has been developing for over 300 years, and that this incarnation of Christianity in China is quite new—only a bit more than 30 years in the making. Maybe someday this seminary environment too will be more open.

Catherine Owens is a student in the MDiv program at EDS.

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