The Privilege of Teaching

I admit, while I like to plan for the future, I also look to the past. Recently I have been cleaning out boxes that have been in storage; boxes full of papers and notes from conferences and classes of years gone by. The cartons have included books, mostly old titles regarding “Religious Education,” including a number written by Dora Chaplin, a woman who paved the way for many of us Christian educators.

Dr. Chaplin, who was educated in England, taught at General Seminary from 1953 until retiring in 1971. In 1964 she was named a full professor, the first woman to become a full professor at the Episcopal seminary. Before that she was affiliated with the National Council of the Episcopal Church. She died in 1990 at the age of 84 and was a well-known writer of articles on religion and spirituality as well as the author of several books, including ”The Privilege of Teaching” (Morehouse-Barlow, 1962) and ”Children and Religion” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948). It is of this first book noted that I would like to share some “back to the future” insights.

Written more than fifty years ago, the content of her books exhibit the language of her time: masculine language for God, women as teachers, men as ordained, and Sunday School as a growing phenomena of the Church. While today is different: inclusive language for God, women in ordained leadership, and church attendance along with Sunday School participation declining, much of her theses can still apply to today. So here are some nuggets to ponder . . . remember this was published in 1962 . . .

By Russell Lee – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

The numbers in the Episcopal Church, both among the laity and the clergy, are kept up by those who come in from other churches. I once heard the Bishop in a great diocese say in regard to the loss of those who are confirmed, “If only half of them would stay firmly rooted in the Church, what strength we would have!” I am convinced that we lose a great many of our young people because we bore them. Also they have to discard what they have learned earlier because it will not stand the scrutiny of their growing minds when a greater knowledge of science and history comes in. What they were taught when young has to be unlearned This is not only unnecessary; it is criminal. Moreover, we do not show them the relationship between what goes on in church buildings and what happens in the life outside as they come face to face with the world, and themselves in the world. They do not see that the Holy Communion, or Eucharist, should continue in the world when they are needed to go out and help create Holy Community. (page 31)

Dr. Chaplin builds The Privilege of Teaching on two key truths about Christian education. She says, “Our constant aim in the education of a Christian is to lead him, through his sacramental life in the Church’s worship and work, to discover Almighty God in Christ Jesus and to be transformed to God’s will and purpose, in this world and the next.” (page 15)

As for the “penny-pinchers” in the parishes, they need a new perspective Surely nobody disputes the need for good music in our services; yet when one finds (as I have done) that there is sometimes three times as much money spent on paid choir members and music as is allowed for the incredibly poor Sunday School (hidden away, of course) in a parish where there is not a single adult group studying and not one iota of Teacher Training, one should think seriously about how money is best spent. (page 44)

The remainder of her book can be seen as a teacher training manual. She talks about the importance of prayer, being able to articulate one’s belief as a teacher, how to teach “experientially” with a big focus on visual aids instead of lecture, and know the child being taught as well as the parents. In response to the complaints she received from those who were teaching in churches, she responded with a “list of complaints” in reverse order, arranging them with the most important matter first in a positive form:

  • Teachers must be adequately trained. (Questions: What does go into making a good teacher? How much can be done without sending him to classes?)
  • Those in authority [note: in this case she meant parish priests] must be helped to understand.
  • We will try to find out how to interest and involve parents.
  • We will try to show the whole parish its responsibility.
  • We will write to publishers about the Teachers’ Guides, giving suggestions and saying what is practical.
  • We will campaign for more time and, where it is absolutely impossible to extend it, use what time we have more effectively.
  • We will try to show the newly-awakened people that the physical conditions need improving, but we will do all we can to make our teaching interesting that the imperfect conditions will have less ill effect. [note: one of her big complaints are that children are in dingy basement classrooms]
  • We will study the matter of poor discipline honestly and find out whether we are at fault as well as the students. (page 47)

Which of Dr. Chaplin’s themes resonate with you and your experience teaching in the church today? How would you respond to her about today’s world?

Stay tuned for more excerpts from the “archives” and how the past might inform the future.

1 thought on “The Privilege of Teaching

  1. Thanks, Sharon, for honoring Dr. Dora Chaplin. Such wisdom and truth-telling. How long, oh Lord, how long? We – Christian educators/formation leaders – must not grow weary.


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