One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind.
Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification. The letter reads:
“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency. The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”
Many of you may already know that. Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations. So why am I spending an entire post on this? Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story?
Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia? I think not. So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey. Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations.
How a step became a leap….
Before ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC. In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school. However, there were two major hurdles. First, there is no APC precedent for judging Pagan theological programs. Second, there are no standards in theological courses of study across religious institutions. So how do you prove the equivalency of an unknown factor to something else that just doesn’t exist?
Solving this conundrum and proving equivalency became the basis of Sandra’s master’s thesis. Her abstract reads:
The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.
As you might imagine, the comparison was not cut-and-dried. Pagan theological course work does not always fit neatly with that of other religions. For example, many Christian-based masters programs require in-depth Bible study classes. Pagan theology doesn’t have an equivalent text and, therefore, can’t have similar requirements. In the end, Sandra not only had to demonstrate academic course equivalency, she had to explain Pagan theological structure, proving its equivalency as well.
As the BCCI letter proves, she was successful, paving the way for future Pagan Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) students. During my conversation with her, Sandra, who is now 65 years old, emphasized that she did not apply for the sake of her own career. Her goal was to “kick the door down for others” and to help establish the credibility of CHS Chaplaincy programs. Her work, as she said, “is now a prototype for how it can be done” while the school remains unaccredited.
But that won’t be forever. Holli S. Emore, executive director of CHS, verified that the administration is currently undergoing the lengthy application process that will eventually lead to full accreditation with the Distant Education and Training Council (DETC). Holli described, in detail, how becoming accredited is a crucial step for the future of CHS and its students.
First, it will “earmark” Cherry Hill Seminary as a legitimate school of higher education on par with any other accredited academic seminary regardless of religious affiliation. At this point, CHS has already been licensed in the state of South Carolina to award higher-education degrees. Accreditation will take that a step further, setting the institution apart from make-shift online courses by recognizing CHS’ high academic standards, rigorous programs of study and degreed teachers.
As for the students, accreditation means two things. For graduates seeking credentials, like Sandra, they no longer have to prove equivalency or justify the credibility of their education. Furthermore, accreditation would allow CHS students to apply for federal tuition assistance including Veterans’ benefits and other Military-based aid. Right now, CHS students pay out of their own pockets.
So where is CHS in the process? The Board has jumped through the first set of hurdles. Now they are faced with a funding problem. As it turns out, the accreditation process is very expensive, costing thousands of dollars. It will take some time to raise enough funds to meet the remaining accreditation requirements. However, with its dedicated staff and the support of the greater Pagan community it is certainly a real possibility.
In the meantime the school is gaining professional respect through alternative and unexpected means, such as the BCCI letter and the upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina for the 2013 “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium. In a recent email, David L. Oringderff, CHS professor noted:
“The fact that [Sandra] has progressed this far speaks volumes…for the growing acceptance of Pagan spiritual formations within the Interfaith Community, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s standing and credibility in the academic community.”
So what can the rest of us take away from this? What does this mean to the greater Pagan community? All of these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world. Pagan institutions, like CHS, are on the front lines of this social change, breaking the boundaries that separate Paganism from mainstream society and actively standing for the legitimacy of Pagan belief systems. The benefits trickle down to each of us, allowing for positive work at the community level. “When Cherry Hill Seminary is healthy, that well-being extends into all corners of the Pagan world,” Holli remarks.
That’s a big statement. However, Sandra clarified it best when she explained that, “the big institutions will never be able to define Paganism.” They can never take place of the small, autonomous groups practicing throughout the country. However, the institutions do have a very important role to play. “[They] put Paganism into [a social] context for us and for the rest of the world,” she concludes. That work benefits everyone.
As for Sandra, she will continue the APC application for Chaplaincy certification. Beyond that, she looks forward to working with the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, a local interfaith organization that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.” Once again, she takes a small step forward and who knows what size leap may follow.