By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: Fr. Mark Perkins has recently accepted the position of Chaplain and Assistant Headmaster at St. Dunstan’s Academy, a boarding school for high school boys dedicated to an education in the classics, farming, and skilled trades, as well as Christian formation in the Anglican tradition. In the following he outlines what spiritual formation will look like at St. Dunstan’s.
St. Dunstan’s Academy has strong ties to Earth & Altar. Founder, Headmaster, and Board Chair Thomas Fickley has written a number of pieces for us. Editor-in-Chief Sean McDermott is a board member, as are contributors Bp. Chad Jones and Fr. Glenn Spencer.
To learn more about the school, check out Thomas Fickley’s interview on the CiRCE Institute’s Quiddity podcast titled “Poetic Knowledge & Saint Dunstan’s Academy.”
Most churches and Christian schools desire a holistic education of head, heart, and hand for their parishioners and students — but all of them run up against the disjointed incoherence of modernity. St. Dunstan’s Academy will not be immune to the counter-formational pressures of contemporary American life, but the school will be uniquely situated to offer an integrated and coherent life, grounded in and flowing from the heart of the Church. At St. Dunstan’s, spiritual formation and theological education will be seamlessly integrated into daily life in ways not possible in most school contexts.
A Life of Common Prayer
The lives of the St. Dunstan’s faculty, staff, and students will be fundamentally rooted in the Sacraments, in Common Prayer, and in the Scriptures. The weekly climax of life together will be the Sunday Holy Communion. Daily life will be structured around the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. With public worship and Common Prayer at the heart of the community, all will be directed towards their final end and the highest form of human flourishing: to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
The boys will not simply “spectate” at these services. To attend and participate in the liturgy — the corporate work of the people — is to assist at the liturgy. But the boys will also become intimately familiar with the liturgy by serving in a variety of roles — as boat boys, crucifers, acolytes, thurifers, and lay readers. They will sing in the choir. They will serve on the altar guild.
The Scriptures as the Heart of Education
The school community will hear the Scriptures as they are proclaimed in the liturgy and expounded in the Sunday sermon and in daily homilies. Hence the students’ primary encounter with Scripture will not be “homeroom” devotions or Bible classes isolated from the life of the community — and therefore dependent upon the eccentricities of a given teacher. Rather, their biblical education will flow from the corporate reading and preaching of Scripture at which the whole school community is present. While the boys will study the Scriptures in formal classes, these classes will be part of a communal conversation. In their formal theological education they will first and foremost learn to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the particular Bible lessons appointed by the lectionary and heard in Common Prayer.
Specifically, the formal theological education of ninth and tenth graders will be almost exclusively dedicated to deepening their familiarity with the stories of Scripture — beginning with the basics of the narratives but considering also how the stories are told and the classic fourfold manner in which the Church has received them. Absent such a foundation of biblical literacy, all attempts at systematic theology will flounder.
The lectionary readings will continue to be the heart of theological education in eleventh and twelfth grades, where their studies will be supplemented by coursework in biblical Greek (in addition to studies in classical Latin and modern language). In these upper grades, students will also study systematic theology structured according to the Nicene Creed and will learn the basics of Church history. After training in homiletics and licensure by the bishop, and under the guidance of the chaplain, upper-level students will give homilies during the Daily Office — encouraging a deeper engagement with Scripture and providing a means of exploring a vocation to holy orders, as well as offering excellent training in rhetoric and oratory.
Church, Not Parachurch
St. Dunstan’s will not be a parachurch ministry but rather a local instantiation of the Church. The chaplain will be a priest in good standing in the Diocese of the Eastern United States of the Anglican Province of America (APA), under the episcopal oversight of the Bishop Ordinary. (The bishop also serves on the school’s Board of Directors.) His “cure of souls” will include faculty families along with the students, and Sunday services will be open to the public. The school’s Common Prayer will be that of the APA — first and foremost, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
While students need not be Anglicans, they must be baptized Christians, and their theological education will be backwards-designed with a “Portrait of a Well-Formed Anglican” as the end towards which all formation points. (As is evident from the foregoing link, a well-formed Anglican is first and foremost a well-formed Christian; relatively little of the portrait is exclusively Anglican.) Towards the end of their first semester at St. Dunstan’s, students will complete a short course introducing them to the Anglican tradition.
All students will assist at the Holy Eucharist. The sacraments of confession, anointing of the sick, and confirmation (the latter through episcopal visitation) will be available to those needful and desirous of them.
Life at St. Dunstan’s will be governed by the Church Calendar, beginning in Advent and ending with the long Trinity season. Framed by the major events of our Lord’s terrestrial life, the Calendar teaches us about Christ and Christian living through seasons of feasting and fasting, of penitence and exuberant celebration. Saints’ days remind us that the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, extends the Incarnation in time and space. In the lives of individual saints, we see what it looks to live as Christ in every circumstance and station. This great cloud of witnesses — this communion unbroken by death — urges us to follow them as they follow Christ (Hebrews 12:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1).
Rites of Passage
St. Dunstan’s is committed to recovering rites of passage initiating boys into manhood — in part by restoring the significance of the Church’s own lay offices. Sixteen-year-olds who have completed the cursus honorum through the various degrees of altar service will be licensed as lay readers by the bishop. This licensure will be treated as what it is — an initiation into a sacred office privileged to proclaim the Word of God to the assembled local Church — rather than as a pro forma matter of bureaucratic box-checking. Second-semester juniors who have received the proper training and formation will then be licensed by the bishop to preach at the Daily Office — a profound honor, and a weighty responsibility. It is the duty of a young man, not a boy.
All boys will be licensed as lay readers and preachers in due time. A final honor, however, will only be extended to certain eighteen-year-olds — those who have shown a particular dedication to the altar and the liturgy, who have already displayed the early signs of a potential vocation to priestly ministry, and who are willing to commit to a more rigorous rule of life. These young adults will be licensed and set apart as subdeacons — a lay office originally intended for aspirants to holy orders. They will then be privileged to serve in one of the most complex liturgical roles as subdeacon at the Solemn High Mass, and they will embark upon a more intensive path of spiritual formation and service to the Church.
Finally, in consultation with the chaplain and other faculty, seniors will complete a capstone project drawing on the gifts of their time at St. Dunstan’s — their classical education, theological formation, and practical training. While demonstrating the knowledge, habits, and skills developed over the course of high school, the capstone project will be primarily dedicated to helping these young men explore how they will put their education of head, heart, and hand to use in the world and in the Church.
In these and other ways, the students at St. Dunstan’s will leave boyhood behind and be initiated into a community of men in the Church.
A Holistic Formation
The whole of life at St. Dunstan’s will flow from and be directed towards prayer and worship in the beauty of holiness. The spiritual formation of students will not be limited to Common Prayer and formal classwork but will extend into every aspect of life. As they train their hands in the use of tools and in the care of animals; as they learn to harness, train, and control their muscular strength on the rugby field; as they shape their minds through the study of Latin and the reading of poetry — as all of these together shape their affections towards a love of goodness, truth, and beauty, they will have the opportunity to turn more fully and deeply in love and worship toward the Father of lights, from whom every good gift comes (James 1:17).
In every context, the boys will learn to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible — not merely to absorb events passively but to engage all tasks with head, heart, and mind. These qualities form the basis of all good thinking, and they are necessary elements of thinking theologically — of learning to see the world as created by and through and for the Logos, the Word made flesh, who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17; John 1:1-3, 14).
Nothing impedes the cultivation of attention, intelligence, reason, and responsibility — not to mention contemplative prayer and meditation — more than our cultural “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” Hence an integral part of the school’s formative culture will be the corporate practice of digital poverty. No phones, computers, or headphones will be permitted on campus, nor will the boys have private televisions or music players (though they will be trained and encouraged to make their own music, and they will enjoy occasional film screenings and listening sessions).
The school’s rural setting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains also offers unique service opportunities — to use God-given gifts of strength and health, as well as specific skills developed at St. Dunstan’s, to serve the needs of neighbors, the community, and the Church, in partnership with local charities and churches. Acting as the hands and feet of Jesus in serving widows, orphans, prisoners, and others in need, the boys will learn the inherent connection between love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 25:36-40; Hebrews 13:1-3; James 1:27).
Graduating Christian Men
It is hard to exaggerate the difference between St. Dunstan’s and typical American life. Consider: Where is your church physically situated in relation to your home? What portion of your waking hours are spent there each week? Where do your closest friends live? Your extended family? Where do your children go to school? How does your economic productivity at work contribute to the flourishing of your neighborhood? In short, to what extent are work, family, church, and education integrated in one vision of human flourishing in a particular place?
Though radically out of step with modern life, the thick community St. Dunstan’s offers is actually closer to the norm of Christian life for most of the Church’s history. Prior to late modernity, most Christians would have lived and worked and raised their families and died in the same town — all within earshot of the parish’s church bells. This intimacy has its sacrifices and its hazards, but there is nothing weird or unnatural about it — quite the contrary!
As they go on to confront the disjointed and disembodied nature of American culture, graduates must struggle to maintain and embody the vision of authentic and coherent community offered at St. Dunstan’s — particularly as they emerge from digital poverty into a profoundly distracted, frenetic, and acedic society. The school will work to prepare these young men to face a world which has no interest in a coherent vision of life bursting forth from the heart of the Church. But the goal will never be to help them “adjust expectations” better to fit the drudgery and incoherence of modernity — but rather to bring the life of Christ to bear in all circumstances, to live as citizens of heaven in service to the one who will subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).
The Christian vision of embodied human flourishing requires a recovery of thick community and embodied work. Every year, St. Dunstan’s will send out twelve men who have had a unique opportunity to live a coherent Christian life. They will have muscles strengthened by hard work and play; hands trained to work with tools; hearts shaped to care for creatures great and small; voices tuned to sing praises to God; minds formed by great books; imaginations fired by poetry. The Scriptures will be on their minds, on their lips, and, by God’s grace, on their hearts. In short and by grace, they will burn with love for goodness, truth, and beauty in this life — and for the life of the world to come.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.