The only Orthodox theological programs in Canada accredited by the Association of Theological Schools are offered at a historically Anglican college—a fact that may seem counterintuitive. But as Fr. Geoffrey Ready, an Orthodox priest and co-director of the Orthodox School of Theology (OST) at Trinity College says, it is also “far from accidental.”
Ready was the chief driving force behind the creation of the OST in 2015, when Trinity College extended the Orthodox and Eastern Christian studies program it had offered since 2006 to include an MDiv degree. Canon David Neelands, former dean of divinity at Trinity College, says that before Trinity offered its Orthodox and Eastern Christian studies program, the Orthodox church had no real presence at the University of Toronto.
“We had a long relationship with Orthodox figures, so we thought we’d give it a try,” Neelands says. “We’ve always been hospitable to other denominations that didn’t have a college at the University of Toronto.”
Trinity’s Anglican heritage, Ready says, actually makes the college a more welcoming space for an Orthodox program.
“The Anglican and Orthodox churches have a lot in common,” he notes. “Both are communions of local churches with no centralized global hierarchy. Rather, their unity is based on shared communion in faith and sacrament…. That’s important on many levels, and it means there’s an instinctive bond and familiarity between Anglicans and Orthodox.”
Ready describes both Anglican and Orthodox as “big tent” churches, centred on a common faith that still allows for a wide variety of approaches and theologies. Anglicanism, for example, historically encompassed both “high” (Anglo-Catholic) and “low” (evangelical) church traditions. Meanwhile, Orthodox traditions—having never experienced a schism on the same scale as the Protestant Reformation— arguably housed all their dissenters in one tent, Ready says.
He also cites the example of the late Canadian Anglican bishop Henry Hill, who spread awareness of Eastern traditions and fostered good relations between Anglican and Orthodox Christians. The OST has hosted a conference dedicated in Hill’s honour.
For these reasons, Ready says, an Anglican faculty of divinity as at Trinity College is in fact “the natural home for an Orthodox school of theology. It offers the catholic breadth in which we are most comfortable to gather, learn and share our Orthodox theology and practice…. It’s precisely the Anglican heritage and theological spirit that assures our Orthodox students that they are welcome now, and in the years to come.”
Since it began offering the MDiv program, the OST has experienced steady growth in student numbers. While most students are part-time, an increasing number study at the school full-time.
Having offered online courses since the beginning, the OST was well-situated to shift towards remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ready says. In part due to its early move into online distance education, up to two-thirds of OST students live outside the Greater Toronto Area.
Canon Philip Hobson OGS, ecumenical officer for the diocese of Toronto and Anglican Communion representative on the Anglican/Orthodox International Theological Dialogue, notes that the Orthodox presence in Canada has been growing for years because of immigration. Newly arrived Christians from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Ethiopia often belonged to Orthodox churches in their native lands.
As ecumenical officer, Hobson has seen Orthodox churches being built across Toronto and the denomination becoming a larger presence within the city and Christian community. Together with Ready, Hobson in 2018 helped revive the local chapter of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an informal fellowship designed to foster ecumenical dialogue, particularly between Anglican and Orthodox Christians.
Hobson calls the OST at Trinity College “a very hopeful sign” in the larger context of ongoing Anglican-Orthodox dialogue. Besides providing an MDiv to Orthodox students, Hobson says, the OST has “broadened and enriched” programs offered at Trinity and allowed Orthodox students to take courses elsewhere through the Toronto School of Theology.
“It allows for that richness and breadth of theology and churchmanship, which I think is really quite wonderful.”