Although Drew’s Graduate Division of Religion no longer houses an official Liturgical Studies Area, both the students who are completing their doctoral work for this degree and graduates of the program have been creating quite a stir. Recently Professor Heather Elkins graciously gave of her time in order to contextualize the creation and closing of this notable doctoral program.
Elkins situates the program’s beginnings in the early 1980’s, when Dean Bard Thompson, along with some colleagues from nearby seminaries, called attention to the fact that, despite the centrality of liturgy to church life and theological studies, worship was not a required course in any of their institutions. According to Elkins, “The proposal was to initiate a program and raise awareness of the central role of liturgical studies as a primary language out of which further scholarship comes. The problem might be corrected by preparing PhDs, since a bottom up approach wasn’t working.”
The program was founded in a time of dynamic ecumenical conversation. Drew desired to accommodate a breadth of disciplines since the field itself was undergoing transformation due to developments such as Vatican II and increased interest in Ritual Studies. As Elkins stated, “diversity could not be sustained when only drawing on our own faculty. It required a larger conversation beyond institutional boundaries.”
The profoundly interdisciplinary nature of the field of Liturgical Studies—which includes at the very least homiletics, liturgics, and musicology—is reflected in the work of the three remaining students.
Nam Joong Kim is researching the role of social justice and preaching in Korean churches as it related to immigration, globalization, and gender. Inherent to such work, Elkins notes, is a deeply interdisciplinary focus.
Michael Sniffen, who is featured in another article in this Newsletter, is interested in performative practice and preaching, as seen through the Occupy Wall Street and Sandy movement. He’s tracking social justice activism as preached and lived beyond the confines of the often overly-structured relationship of pulpit and pew.
Suzanne Duchesne’s work on anti-racism and preaching for social transformation centers around Methodist preaching in relationship to Native Americans. She will be drawing on women’s studies, anti-racism studies, Methodist history, and studies of identity formation.
Elkins states that the “thing that continues to make a difference for these scholars is that colleagues here have been very helpful. The historians, the biblical scholars, and the women’s studies faculty all opened their doors and took our students who were sent to them because their research needed to go beyond their denominational and disciplinary identity.”
Drew’s need for a diversity of denominational approaches had for many years been filled through alliances with faculty of other institutions, but as the Graduate Division of Religion was forming and key Drew faculty retired, this pattern was discontinued. Elkins recalls: “With the formation of the GDR it was determined…that primary faculty needed to be full-time Drew people and that the associative faculty pattern was not going to be continued.” She adds: “Within the present Drew faculty, there’s a narrow band of people who are interested in liturgical studies.”
Currently, the only tenured faculty specializing in this area are Professor Elkins and half-time homiletics and pastoral theology professor Rev. Dr. Gary Simpson. Classes are geared to the needs of MDiv and MAM students rather than doctoral or MA students. Two required courses, one in preaching and one in worship, are taught each semester. Elkins no longer lists advanced classes such as Sacramental Preaching or Sacred Meals for GDR students because there is no place in the curriculum. But in a spot of good news for current students, Professor Elkins is on the lookout for Teaching Assistants with experience as either pastors, choir directors, or youth leaders, for the upcoming Fall and Spring classes in worship and preaching.
Recently, the Theological School has obtained approval for a full-time, tenure-track faculty position in homiletics—a significant development in this time of academic budget cuts. This is particularly welcome news to the graduates of the program, who have put pressure on the Deans to reopen the program, citing the dwindling availability of doctoral programs in Liturgical Studies and Drew’s strong placement record.
Elkins identifies this newly approved position as “the clearest bridge to the future I see” for the area’s potential reopening. When asked directly if the program will reopen, Elkins says it depends on who fills the position and how the curricular conversation unfolds with the other GDR faculty. She notes that there is cause for optimism; but there is no guarantee. “As Dean Kuan has reminded us, as an area we are asleep, not dead. That affirmation, however, requires a conviction about resurrection.” Nonetheless, current and past students continue to make all of us proud!—Shelley L. Dennis, GDR Graduate Student Intern.