The University of the South at Sewanee is a legendarily southern Episcopal Church institution perched beautifully on a plateau in the hills of southeast Tennessee. Earlier this week on a road trip I stopped there. The mystically thick fog enveloping the mountain, enchanting but also perilous, persuaded me to spend the night.
Walking around the beautiful campus I was struck by similarities with Duke University, the similarly quintessential southern university of Methodism, its campus, like Sewanee’s, lined with majestic stone edifices, chief of which is the cathedral-like Duke Chapel.
Duke Chapel has General Robert E. Lee carved into its facade, leaving no doubt about its regional and historical roots. Sewanee, with an equally imposing sanctuary, was founded right before the Civil War by Episcopal Bishop Leonidas Polk, who later became a Confederate general, and possibly the most senior American clergy ever killed in combat. After the war, during which federal forces destroyed the school, General Edmund Kirby Smith, the last major Confederate to surrender, was a teacher at Sewanee, and is remembered with a tasteful monument.
Sewanee was founded with major financial help from a slave trader. Duke was heavily endowed by a tobacco baron, whose statue stands unavoidably on the campus, despite historic Methodist disapproval of his trade. So both schools were originated in sin, so to speak, but the Lord redeems and moves mysteriously.
Like most Mainline Protestant schools, Duke and Sewanee have both long moved seriously away from their original Christian and denominational intent. But both still have seminaries officially tied to their respective denominations. Probably Duke’s overall is closer to Christian and Methodist orthodoxy then is Sewanee’s to traditional Anglicanism.
Yet Sewanee is awarding an honorary degree to perhaps the Anglican world’s most distinguished theologian and biblical scholar, Church of England Bishop Tom Wright, who is robustly orthodox, prompting some controversy. One Sewanee professor of New Testament has denounced Wright’s honorary degree as a “professional embarrassment,” since Wright is “an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance,” who “is little more than a book-a-year apologist.” This aggrieved academic feels “like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.”
And the mostly unknown professor notes that “Wright has since retired as bishop and found a job at an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital.” The snide critic declares his “only consolation is that the embarrassment of Wright’s honorary degree was overshadowed by the even greater debacle of the stridently propagandistic Eric Metaxas, who was tapped to speak at this semester’s convocation.”
Tut-tut-tut for this obscure complainer whose audience is not one percent of Wright’s or Metexas’, and whose scholarship likely will long since be forgotten while Wright’s will be studied for generations.
Mainline Protestant schools like Sewanee and Duke straddle different universes, one foot in banal liberal secularism and one foot, however sometimes tentatively, in ecumenical Christianity and their respective denominational traditions. But both also physically exemplify the cultural and historical predominance that Mainline Protestantism once stolidly occupied in America.
Jody Bottum, author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, once commented that visiting Duke’s campus offered a rare opportunity to imagine what the confident old Mainline predominance once entailed. No doubt the same is true for Sewanee.
At breakfast in Sewanee’s campus inn, the group at the nearby table joined hands and said a hearty, Baptist style prayer before eating their eggs and toast. It rebutted some stereotypes about milquetoast Episcopal spirituality at Sewanee. Likely the Lord still operates on campus, and He has an aesthetically splendid base of operations, if so.