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[The Episcopal News] Anyone who’s ever wondered how to create safe spaces for honest conversation about progressive public theology or the rise of Christian nationalism, or even how to approach a loved one whose memory appears to be slipping, might want to investigate this fall’s course offerings at Bloy House – the Episcopal Theological School at Los Angeles.

As the 63-year-old Southland institution repositions itself in a shifting theological education marketplace, it is rolling out a series of four-week affordable online courses for everyone – for $50 each – that will explore both contemporary issues and ancient traditions, according to the Very Rev. Canon Gary Hall, interim Bloy House dean.

“We exist not simply to educate people for ordained ministry but to serve all the educational needs of the diocese … and we’re on a mission to bring our tuition and fees down,” Hall told The Episcopal News recently.

Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor applauded the effort. “Bloy House’s vision is that our polarized, anxious, secularizing time needs more and more well-educated Christians, especially laypeople who traditionally aren’t encouraged to go to seminary.

“These affordable new offerings are indigenous to our diocese, reflecting our multicultural population and values, signifying our commitment to the democratization of lifelong theological education,” Taylor continued. “I’m deeply grateful to Dean Hall and my board colleagues for turning this new page and want to do all I can to support it. I just wish I could take some of the classes myself!”

For example, Hall and the Very Rev. Gabriel Ferrer, Deanery 2 dean and rector of St. Martin’s Church in Winnetka, will lead a 7 p.m. Tuesdays in September exploration of the roots of Christian nationalism, ranging from positive to dangerous expressions, according to Ferrer.

“These topics are not going anywhere in the next one, two to four years, but may actually grow louder,” said Ferrer, who traces his own spiritual path through Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and the Episcopal Church. “We should at least know the arguments and some of the verbiage being bandied about.”

Divisive cultural, religious, economic and political forces, aggravated by social and other media, can become exploitative and harmful, added Ferrer. “I think we’ll have some good discussions. The hope is we will offer enough resources so folks will feel equipped to take the next step if they want to.”

Similarly, the Rev. Robert Lee, a self-described “closet Episcopalian” and pastor of Unifour Church, a nondenominational church that is 85% LGBTQ+, said Hall convinced him to lead a 7 p.m. Thursdays in September course about modern public theology.

“The rise of modern public theology and the voice of progressive faith leaders can be directly traced to the election of Donald Trump and subsequent events,” according to the four-week course description. “This course seeks to help learners create a space in their parishes for both conversation surrounding faith and policy issues while also giving tools for having those conversations beyond the platitudes of polarizing conflict.”

Lee, in an email interview with The News, called Hall “a force to be reckoned with and Bloy House is lucky to have him.”

The course will also focus on how parishes may influence the policy and politics of their surrounding communities.

“That may seem intimidating and counter-intuitive for the student at first but if we re-focus the church as a non-partisan yet political organization then we are ultimately refocusing toward Jesus,” Lee said.

Through Episcopal Communities and Services, Susan Brown trains volunteers as By Your Side Vigil Companions, to be a compassionate presence for those nearing the end of life. On Thursdays at 7 p.m. in October she will launch what she hopes to be the first of a four-part frank assessment of assumptions made about aging and ageism.

The class will examine aging from the lenses of cross-cultural differences, employment, health, medicine, spirituality, and charitable giving, according to a course description.

“If we can explore ageism, how might that be expressing itself in our programming, our pastoral care and especially our training for people who will work with an older population?”

In subsequent semesters, Brown hopes to present topics on dementia, ministry to older adults, end-of-life issues and beyond: “I wonder, do we know how many food insecure people there are over 65 in this diocese? Those are some of the issues we will look at,” she said.

Also to be offered, on Tuesday evenings in October, is a course on medieval women mystics, led by the Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith, retired Bishop of Arizona and former rector of St. James in-the-City, Los Angeles.

Bloy House seeks ‘unique niche’ in theological education

Hall, former dean of Washington National Cathedral and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, marks a one-year anniversary as interim Bloy House dean on June 30. As the seminary begins the search for a new dean, the school – well-known for training Southland laity, clergy and bishops – seeks a unique niche in an increasingly competitive environment by returning to its roots, he said.

“Bloy House started in 1958 by serving people that the traditional seminary world didn’t serve,” Hall told The News recently. Named for Francis Eric Bloy, the third bishop of Los Angeles, the seminary offered theological education courses every other weekend to those whose family and employment obligations made three-year residential seminary participation unattainable.

A 1970 partnership with and relocation to the Claremont School of Theology resulted in a name change to the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont, and a joint M.Div. program with the Methodist-affiliated institution. The partnership has continued online since CST moved in 2020 to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. That move prompted Bloy House’s relocation to Glendale and another name change, to the Episcopal Theological School at Los Angeles.

Hall said tuition-free seminaries such as Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, have prompted the school to seek new opportunities among the laity, also a Bloy House tradition.

Those opportunities continue to include Fresh Start programs for those in new assignments, the Instituto de Liderazgo that trains Spanish-speaking church leaders, the Li Tim Oi Center that trains Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, and Education for Episcopal Leadership. More recently, Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE for Laity, led by the Rev. Jana Milhon Martin, was added.

“We are exploring how we ought to do ministry education in the future,” encompassing such possibilities as offering fewer core theological education classes, Hall said. Instead, the school would focus efforts on such possibilities as cross-cultural field education courses, and the many innovative and contextual ministries already existing within the diocese.

For the full range of Bloy House credit and noncredit educational opportunities, visit its website here.