Program of the Ministry

The Program of the Ministry of Phillips Exeter Academy
Report of the Program Planning Committee for Phillips Church


In late May of 1998, Principal Tyler Tingley charged the Program Planning Committee for Phillips Church with "writing a program statement for the Church to guide the renovations of the building." He then decided on which community members he would appoint to the committee. By the end of the summer the undersigned had agreed to serve. The make-up of our committee is, in and of itself, a statement about the charge: We are conspicuously heterogeneous, coming from various areas of the community and out of various faith traditions. Among other things, we are a math teacher, a fund raiser, a religion teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, an admissions officer, a PEA parent, the School Minister, and an English teacher. Our personal religious beliefs run the gamut from deep faith to deep skepticism. In the broadest sense, we are ecumenical, and intentionally so. As we went about our work, our very make-up both reminded us and allowed us to consider multiple perspectives, thereby maximizing the chances of a comprehensive program statement.

We began to meet as a committee in the first week of the school year. After some reflection and consultation with the Principal, we determined that our charge was a broad one: We were to think of Phillips Church as an institution rather than as simply an edifice, and we were to think of its program in philosophical terms. Consistent with that determination, we decided to place at the center of our report certain tenets that we see as fundamental to that program. We offer as well an elaboration, based on our committee's deliberations, of each tenet; we are confident that those elaborations will serve as the foundation for the program-needs statement that will "guide the renovations of the building."

To enrich our deliberations, we undertook various tasks. We read numerous pertinent documents from our school's archives. We visited Andover, Northfield Mount Hermon, Saint Lawrence University, and Wellesley College, talking with their respective chaplains and touring their chapels, and we reviewed relevant material from schools such as Groton, Hamilton, and Dartmouth. We solicited the opinion of the PEA Faculty. We met with some three dozen students representing both those aligned with particular religions and those who might describe themselves as not religious. We observed, and in some cases participated in, various activities that take place in Phillips Church. We met with the architects hired to do the design work for the renovations of the Church. And we maintained regular contact with Don Briselden, Will Davison, and the Principal.  The following is our report.

Part I: Philosophical Considerations

Just over a year ago, the Council for Religion in Independent Schools (CRIS) changed its name to the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE). During our discussion of the implications of this change, the members of the committee came to understand why the School Minister and the other members of our Religion Department stand united in opposition to the Council's decision. They think that it reflects a nervousness about, even a loss of faith in, the very word religion. It is fair to say that, at the outset, some members of our committee shared that nervousness, a nervousness that many would say has permeated the current culture of this country. But what we as a group came first to articulate, then to understand, and finally to embrace is a basic definition of religion that reflects its Latin roots: re, "back, especially to an original or former state," plus ligare, "to bind." Those roots suggested to us that the word religion implies a universal human search to discover a feeling of connection to or unity with something outside of one's self. We saw that religion defined in that way spoke to the individual's need to relieve himself or herself of a feeling of separation or isolation; that it had less to do with the dogma of any particular faith than with words that appear regularly on the back of the Phillips Church program: "[Worship] is the common sharing of life's wonder, terror, mystery, and ambiguity." In a moment of illumination, we realized that we were talking about religion in a new way, thinking not of a specific religion, like that of Muslims or of Jews or of Catholics, but rather of a universalized experience of religion. It was, we decided, as if we were talking about Religion rather than religion. In that light, we began to talk about our own Religious experiences, and in that talk, we found substantial common ground. As we did so, we found ourselves accepting as axiomatic that the Religious impulse precedes spiritual growth, rather than the other way around, whether it  be the impulse of a believer or the impulse of an atheist. The more we understood what we meant by Religion, the more we came collectively to disagree with CRIS' decision to become CSEE. And then the following seemed clear to us: The Ministry of Phillips Church needs to  be as concerned with the Religious dimension of all of our lives as it is with the particular religious needs of any one of us. The Ministry of Phillips Church needs to be as concerned with the questions of a seeker of Religion as it is with the practice of a follower of any particular religion.

In a similar manner, and helped by the school's founder, we came to see the word minister in a new light. In the deed of gift, John Phillips asserts the following: "But, above all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care." Given those words, it seems unlikely that the founder would think amiss our contention that, in a broad sense, all members of the faculty of Phillips Exeter minister to their students. But within this vision of school-wide ministering, we see the Ministry of Phillips Church as having a special and particular responsibility to monitor and nourish both the religious and the Religious needs of those same students, indeed of the community as a whole. To that end, we believe that the Ministry must try to do the following:

  foster a congenial climate of worship for any student or group of students aligned with a particular religious tradition

John Phillips could hardly have envisioned the implications in the late 20th century of his eighteenth-century words: "And [this Academy] shall ever be equally open to youth. ..from every quarter." He would likely be surprised by the array of geographic "quarters" represented currently by our students, but he would surely be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, by the array of religious traditions they represent. Still and all, mindful of the dictate to be "open," we believe that any and all students (as well as members of the larger Academy community) should be able to follow, within reason, his or her religious practices and that not only the school Ministry but also the school at large should be supportive of those practices. (see 1 and 2 below)

  offer to those not aligned with any particular religious tradition opportunities to deepen their Religious lives

We know that, among the adults in our community no less than among the adolescents, there are many who would claim no connection to any religious tradition, indeed many who would work to maintain that very disconnection. In our meeting with the students, however, it was clear that some who will not come to Phillips Church for purposes of traditional religious services will and do come to Phillips Church for Meditations, Evening Prayer, musical performances, private reflection, or the like. We know as well that there are students who do not come to Phillips Church at all. Yet we contend that the students in those two groups are no less likely to want to deepen their Religious lives than are those students who are aligned with a particular religion. We see the Ministry as having a responsibility to the former constituency as well as to the latter. It follows, then, that the Ministry must offer opportunities for Religious growth as well as opportunities for religious worship.

  stimulate discussion, for purposes of education and understanding, among the individuals and groups described above

Our afore-mentioned meeting with the students included many who are active in religious groups on campus, some who are active in other groups that bring them into Phillips Church, and some who have little connection to Phillips Church. The meeting was stimulating and satisfying, the students articulate and energetic. But that very energy suggested to us an eagerness for such discussions. We know that around the Harkness Table in Religion Department classes, such discussions are common, but we see a need for occasions outside the formal classroom for conversations about faith. We see such occasions as saying to students that religious questioning and inter-faith understanding have an importance that goes beyond the purely academic.

  place students at the center of the activities of the Religious life of the school

The current Master Planning initiative has brought us two major principles: Extend John Phillips' words "youth ... from every quarter" to "people ... of every quarter" ; and extend the Harkness philosophy to include any and all activities of the school. Consistent with the second of these principles is our belief that students belong at the heart of the activities overseen by the Ministry. In this regard, we appreciate the student participation and leadership evidenced for years in Christian and Jewish services and more recently in the activities of groups like the Buddhist Fellowship, the Hindu Society, and the Islamic Society; equally, we applaud student involvement in Evening Prayer and the program of Meditations. As students are, by pedagogical design, at the center of the academic classroom, so should they be at the center of the Religious classroom. The Ministry must facilitate their participation and consider their points of concern as conscientiously as does the academic classroom teacher.

  support the energies of students interested in social service

Our thinking here is stimulated both by "Non Sibi" (not for oneself), the defining words from the school's seal, and by John Phillips' guiding assertion: "...well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind." We see a natural link between service and the Ministry; indeed, the very word minister comes from Latin roots that suggest service. And the history of the Exeter Social Service Organization (ESSO) manifests that link. While we recognize that many see social service as part of a school-wide ministry, above and beyond the specific Ministry of Phillips Church, and while we recognize pragmatic concerns with the current arrangements for ESSO (see 3 below), we believe that the School Ministry must be linked with the school's program of service. It is symbolically important that Phillips Church, a building that many see as inherently associated with goodness, have a connection to ESSO, a program that many see as a prime manifestation of "Non Sibi."

  recognize music and art as integral to the Religious life of the school

Music is a fundamental component in the liturgical history of many religions, and it is, and should be, a regular part of the services of worship that take place in Phillips Church. Beyond that, however, we see in much art and music a conspicuously Religious component, so we find it appropriate and natural, even essential, that the Ministry encourage in the church regular and varied musical performance, and we can envision as well the church as home to other cultural activities as well as exhibitions of art. We see such activities as potentially inspiring to all and as welcoming to some who might otherwise be little inclined to come to Phillips Church. (see 5 below)

  serve the Academy family both in public moments of ceremony and in private moments of counsel

We understand the first responsibility of the Ministry ever to be to the students of the school. It is natural and appropriate to have Ministerial presence at major school gatherings, such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the school year; it is equally natural and appropriate for the Ministry to offer pastoral guidance to students who seek counsel. Above and beyond such responsibilities, however, we think that, guided by reason and common sense, the Ministry may attend as well to needs of the broader Academy community. While we recognize the work-load implications of this assertion, we see attention to non-student community constituencies as both helpful to them personally and inspiriting to the community as a whole. (see  6 below)

A Related Comment:

Consistent with our questions of other schools, we asked ourselves what we thought the relationship between the Ministry of Phillips Church and the Department of Religion should be. We knew that the formal aspects of that relationship had changed over the years, and we saw at other schools a variety of models currently in place, so, in line with our overall approach to this report, we decided to discuss this matter, too, in philosophical and forward-looking terms. We wish to make two major points: First, we see an intuitively natural link between the Ministry and the Religion Department. It is logical that each should be a resource for the other. We can envision the School Minister or Ministers teaching a course under the auspices of the Religion Department, thereby creating an important connection to an academic department; equally, we can envision members of the Department helping with the activities of the Ministry. Such arrangements, however, have significant work-load implications, which must be fairly factored in. Second, because the Ministry has broad institutional impact, we see the Minster(s) as working outside of the immediate jurisdiction of the Religion Department. However, given the link that we highlight above, we believe that the Religion Department should play a role in the hiring and in the evaluation for tenure of the School Minister(s).

Part II: Practical Considerations

In 1744, certain disgruntled parishioners of Exeter's Protestant Congregational Church separated from what came to be called the First Church. Referring to themselves as the New Parish, these parishioners built, where Dow House now stands, a wooden Meeting House in which they worshipped. This first house becoming inadequate, the parish constructed, in 1823, a second Meeting House, which in its turn also became inadequate. In 1896, the Trustees of the Academy donated the present site to this same parish (now called the Second Church), and its parishioners created a plan calling for a new church building that would be a "stately Gothic edifice of granite." Ralph Adams Cram, the renowned architect who was born only a few miles from Exeter, designed the present building. On October 13, 1897, its cornerstone was laid, and on September 30, 1899, it was dedicated as The Phillips Church. Circumstantial change caused the parishioners of the Second Church, in 1916, to leave Phillips Church and rejoin the First Church, thereby giving the Academy the chance to rent the building for its own religious program. In 1922, the Academy bought the building, and Phillips Church became what it had been called unofficially for some years: The School Church.

Much of the language and the substance of the preceding paragraph comes to us from Helen Stuckey through her Bulletin article entitled "The Phillips Church: 1899-1922: 1922-1974." And we agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Stuckey when she declares, simply, "It is a beautiful building." Furthermore, we note with delight that Hoyle, Doran & Berry, the firm contracted to do the design work for the renovation, was formerly Cram and Ferguson, thus giving the building's architectural present a vivid tie with its architectural past. We believe that the Academy is fortunate to have on its campus, and the community is fortunate to have for its use, a building of such aesthetic and historical dimension. As the school moves ahead in its plan to renovate "The School Church," we cannot urge strongly enough that, as one of us put it, "this building be lovingly preserved and carefully restored."

Preliminary Thoughts

Consistent with what we understood to be our primary charge, we stayed on a philosophical plane as we prepared the body of this report. Not surprisingly, however, we often thought about some of the practical implications of our philosophical tenets. Anticipating the program-needs statement, the next step in this plan, we wish to outline some of that thinking.

1. We would hope that the followers of any and all religions could find some place in Phillips Church congenial for worship. We recognize that the Church was built as a Christian church and will always, in larger and smaller detail, manifest that fact; we thereby accept the premise that it can be uncomfortable for a non-Christian to enter the building for purposes of worship. We further recognize that there is not enough physical space in Phillips Church, whatever the configuration, to guarantee to those of each religion a private place for worship. We think, however, that it would be possible to clear some space in the building of any visible indication of a particular religion. The existence of such a space would, we believe, help to make the building inviting to all. As a venue for the conversations about faith that we mention in Part I, it would contribute to fostering understanding of the different points of view that "youth from every quarter" currently bring to this school. Such understanding would help to engender the kind of harmony implicit in the Hebrew expression shalom bayit (peace in the home).

2. It is clear that the stained glass window at the west end of the building, impressive as it is esthetically, is controversial because of its Christian iconography, including but not limited to the image of Jesus Christ. For some Christians, that window surely presents the most inspiring feature of the church; for some non-Christians, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enter the sanctuary of the church. We have considered various ideas relative to this dilemma, including: removing the image of Christ; constructing a screen, external or internal, that could cover the window during certain activities; designing for other windows in the sanctuary, including the equally large east window, iconography that would represent other religious traditions or other Religious activity. Recognizing the broad importance of this matter, we recommend that the community be involved in the decision regarding the disposition of the windows.

3. The number of students (some 600) currently participating in the Exeter Social Service Organization (ESSO) is impressive, even inspirational. At the same time, it makes daunting the organization's oversight. Under the present arrangement, no one person can be both School Minister and Faculty head of ESSO. The program must receive the support of additional staffing.

4. We have mentioned work load often enough to warrant a separate comment on the matter. Our visits to other schools plus our sense of the recent growth of the demands on the Ministry lead us to recommend administrative help for the School Minister(s) of the sort that chaplains at other schools seem routinely to enjoy.

5. We urge that any renovation plan include specific attention to the acoustical properties of the sanctuary and to the condition of the organ. Even should the Academy have a large performance hall with excellent acoustics, we would want some musical performances to take place in the church, for religious and Religious reasons suggested in Part I.

6. Given the size of the Academy family and the difficulty in defining its membership, we suggest that the Administration work with the Minister(s) to clarify the areas of applicability of this tenet (see above). Many people are, for a variety of good reasons, drawn to Phillips Church, including some townspeople of Exeter who have no formal connection to the Academy. We think that clarity in definition will help in the exercise of "reason and common sense."

We would like to highlight the title of this report. From the earliest stages of our discussions, it became clear to us that we were talking philosophically about the program for the school's Ministry rather than practically about the activities in the school's church. Thus, instead of entitling our report The Phillips Church Program Statement, we have chosen to entitle it The Program of the Ministry of Phillips Exeter Academy. We believe that this title is consistent with our charge. More important, we believe that this title is resonant with a central philosophy in this report. The word church inevitably suggests the Christian history of both this building and this school; thus, a church program statement, however articulated, may not seem to apply to everybody in the school. Our program statement for the School Ministry, on the other hand, is insistently inclusive. Thus, the title of this report is an important reflection of what we assert in the report: that all religious traditions at PEA have equal worth, even though they are unequally represented in our current student body and may be so in any future student body; and that those who are not aligned with a religious tradition are of as much concern to the School Ministry as those who are so aligned.

Finally, we would like to say that this experience, however daunting initially, has been inspirational to us. We have talked as colleagues about matters that are deeply personal, matters that take us to the heart of our being. To put it in familiar terms, we feel as if we have been in the best kind of adult Harkness class, one that has been energized by the dynamic of interfaith dialogue, one that has offered us repeated opportunity to bind ourselves to something outside of ourselves, one that has been essentially Religious. We hope that this report conveys some of the vitality of that experience.

Respectfully submitted,

Patricia Babecki, Elizabeth Drolet, Peter Greer, Chair, Jamie Hamilton, Sam Heath, Steve Kushner, Rick Mahoney, Paula Singer, Robert Thompson