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Interview with Our President, Bryan Hollon

Interview with Our President, Bryan Hollon

INTERVIEW WITH TAS PRESIDENT – DR. BRYAN C. HOLLON

By David W. Virtue, DD

www.virtueonline.org

An interview with The Very Rev’d Canon Dr. Bryan C. Hollon, president of Trinity Anglican Seminary in Ambridge, PA. 

VOL: Thank you Dr. Hollon for giving me your time for this interview.)

HOLLON: Thank you for reaching out, David. I’m happy to spend some time talking about Trinity and our future. 

VOL: Your website states: “Trinity is an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition. You develop Christian leaders who can plant, renew, and grow churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.” How is that going? How many students do you have studying full time for the ministry? How many part-time? 

HOLLON: When I arrived at Trinity two years ago, we were just coming out of the COVID years. The residential student body was reduced significantly during the pandemic, but our online enrollment had risen, which was not a surprise. 

Currently, we have around 250 students studying at Trinity in some capacity with just under 100 considered “full-time,” according to the criteria recommended by our accrediting agency, the Association of Theological Schools. 

During the last two years, our enrollment has been trending upwards, and in our current, spring recruiting season, applications are up 92% compared to the same period last year. Many of these applications are for full-time, residential MDiv students, so we are very encouraged. 

VOL: I notice that since 2013, students training for the ministry come from Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian backgrounds to study at TAS. How is that working out?

HOLLON: We have excellent relations with the local presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterial Church and with the North American Lutheran Church. As you likely know, the North American Lutheran Seminary is “embedded” at Trinity, and we have three full-time faculty members fully funded by the North American Lutheran Church. Those faculty members teach a select menu of courses offered only to Lutheran students. The Lutherans have their own very generous scholarship program to fund Lutheran students, so we don’t typically see crossover from Lutheran to Anglican. We work hard to respect each other’s traditions and not to poach students from each other. 

Though the Lutherans have their own menu of Lutheran-specific courses, their students take most of their classes, such as languages, biblical studies, pastoral ministry, etc., with our Anglican faculty. The presbyterian students also enroll in our regular curriculum, but we have a handful of presbyterian adjunct professors teaching a select number of courses offered exclusively to those students seeking ordination in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. With both the Lutherans and the Presbyterians, we really have no conflict or tension. It all works very smoothly, makes Trinity a stronger institution, and does not dilute our Anglican identity in any way.

VOL: I notice that you are firmly embedded in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Did you come by that naturally, a refugee from TEC perhaps?  Have you had other denominational affiliations before the ACNA? Tell us about your journey into the ACNA.

HOLLON: My family attended First Christian Church of Weslaco, Texas, which was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. It was a wonderful, family church and my pastor, Dr. James Sill, had a Ph.D. in theology. Dr. Sill’s substantive preaching, and our tradition of celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week, were important influences for me.

I attended Baylor University and discovered that the Disciples of Christ, as a denomination, were moving in a very progressive direction. My wife grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, so we attended baptist churches in our early years of marriage. 

We went to Fuller Theological Seminary in the late 90s and returned to Baylor for a Ph.D. in 2001. During my doctoral studies, I was introduced to the “great theological tradition,” by some of my professors, who included Ralph Wood, Barry Harvey, Dan Williams, Thomas Hibbs, David Lyle Jeffrey, and others. Several of those professors were on the Canterbury trail and ended up in the ACNA. 

Those were formative years for me, so when I landed a tenure-track position teaching theology at Malone University in Canton, Ohio I was on the Canterbury trail myself. Just as the ACNA was being formed, my wife and I became involved with a local Anglican Church plant and have remained in the Anglican tradition ever since. 

I was ordained a deacon in 2015 and then to the priesthood. In 2017, my wife and I planted St. John’s Anglican Church in North Canton, Ohio. The church is going strong today and is being led by former students and friends.  

VOL: As a scholar you specialize in ressourcement theology, which you say is best exemplified in the work of Henri de Lubac. What is ressourcement theology and who is Henri de Lubac?

HOLLON: Ressourcement is a French word meaning “resourcing.” It was used in the mid-twentieth century to identify a movement seeking to better align the Roman Catholic church with the “great Christian tradition” by “resourcing” it with the writings of the greatest thinkers throughout Christian history, such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.  Henri de Lubac and his ressourcement colleagues were working against a very “doctrinaire,” Roman Catholic establishment and were often accused of being modern day reformers. That was not a compliment. 

Those leading the movement, like Henri de Lubac, believed that there is a theological consensus running down through the ages and that we gain a clearer understanding of our own faith the more grounded we are in the witness of ages past. This is very similar to what C.S. Lewis meant with his phrase, “Mere Christianity.” Mere Christianity is that consensus that all Christians should agree on. For Lewis’ argument in this regard, you might read his essay, “On the Reading of Old Books.”  

Henri de Lubac fought in World War I and was at the height of his career during World War II. A contemporary of C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many other important 20th century thinkers, he was an outspoken opponent of the French Vichy regime, which cooperated with the Nazis during the War. Indeed, many of de Lubac’s greatest theological contributions were produced as he was in hiding from the Nazis. His writings have a depth and seriousness to them that is like the work of other wartime Christian writers, including Lewis, Tolkein, and others. 

Although de Lubac wrote prolifically about many subjects, he focused on the nature and authority of the bible more than any other subject. He was thoroughly orthodox in his thinking, and he paved the way for stronger ecumenical relations between Catholics and Protestants. De Lubac had a major influence on Vatican II and especially on Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

VOL: You say you have always been interested in the ways that Christians and Christian churches engage contemporary culture and remain faithful to the gospel in different contexts, and you embrace the tradition that C.S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Please expand on this.

HOLLON: Some of the best theological writing is done at times when the church is struggling in a hostile culture. The work of Henri de Lubac, C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Dieterich Bonhoeffer and others are a testament to this fact. But even in times of relative peace, a good Christian communicator will see clearly (and help others see) that the world is not as it should be. Good Christian witness will offer a vision of the gospel that is compelling – that scratches an itch, so to speak, and also offers a remedy. 

In the “Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis mentions that we are like children, happy to be splashing about making mud pies even though we’ve been offered a holiday at sea. Christian preaching and teaching thus have a double responsibility; we must help people see that they are splashing about in mud puddles making mud pies, and we must help people visualize the holiday at sea that God desires for us. 

Unfortunately, Christians tend to get caught up in the Spirit of the age far too often. We fail to see that the gospel offers a vision of life that is far greater than the secular world can imagine. Whether we are talking about the secular vision of social justice, sexuality, race relations, gender equality – what have you – these are like the mudpuddles that C.S. Lewis has in mind. We cannot be satisfied with secular/unchristian versions of human flourishing, and we cannot be naive about the world and its lies. Yet, we will absolutely fail in our witness if we are bitter or cynical. 

The gospel of grace requires us to love everyone splashing about in mudpuddles even as we organize our own communities for a holiday at sea and continually invite others to join us. Christian witness in the 21st century will require clarity of boundaries, clarity in gospel communication, and genuine hospitality for the many broken people who need the love of Christ. 

VOL: As an Anglican church layman, journalist, and author, I have watched with interest the evolving world of church life. A lot of what I see today among priests is their failure to know how to reach the next generation for Christ. Nones are on the increase, Christianity is said to be slowly dying in America according to Pew and Barna, (it is thriving in the Global South.) What sort of apologetics works in reaching unchurched Americans for Christ. What sort of courses are taught at TAS to reach new generations who have little or no Bible knowledge? Can you turn this around?

HOLLON: I think I’ve answered the first part of this question in my response above, so I’ll address TAS and its course offerings. We’ve just completed a thorough curriculum revision, and we are working hard to serve the church as effectively as possible. A greater emphasis on cultural apologetics along with better training for evangelism and missions are central to our current strategic plan. At Trinity, we have two endowed Institutes: The Robert Webber Center, and the Stanway Institute. 

Robert Webber was highly interested in cultural apologetics and wrote a manifesto titled the “Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future” where he described the crucial task of “re-narrating the world” with the gospel. The work of re-narrating the world describes what I mention above – a process of helping people see the mud puddle and the holiday at sea clearly. The Holiday at sea is the gospel, and once we see it clearly – the mud puddle begins to look very unappealing. C.S. Lewis called this process “re-enchanting,” and it is a central task for every teacher and preacher of the gospel. Of course, seeing only works if we have Christian communities offering genuine hospitality and a living testimony where the holiday at sea can be experienced, at least in part.

Moving forward, we will focus the resources of the Robert Webber Center more sharply on this process of re-narrating. You’ll begin to see this emphasis in our public lectures, conferences, and intensive course offerings. The Stanway Institute is focused on missions and evangelism, so moving forward, you’ll see more resources devoted to training current and future clergy to communicate the gospel in our secular local context and abroad. The Robert Webber Center and the Stanway Institute are the two poles contextualizing our curriculum. 

As you mention above, biblical illiteracy is a growing problem, and this is a serious issue for the church. As the church has always affirmed, the bible is like the language of the Holy Spirit. Christians must read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God to discern the Spirit’s guidance and be instruments of the Spirit’s healing power. At Trinity, biblical theology is at the heart of everything we do. In our most recent curriculum revision, we kept all our bible and language requirements and added four hours to our MDiv program. We have become more, rather than less, rigorous in our bible requirements. This seems like the right response in a world where biblical literacy is declining, though many seminaries are taking the opposite approach, reducing their requirements substantially. Rest assured; Trinity remains very rigorous. 

VOL: How are future ordinands going to engage with the Tik Tok generation; a generation geared almost totally to social media? It is being said that the “box church” approach is fading and more contemporary ideas of worship will need to emerge to engage and capture the imagination of 18–35-year-olds. Can you groom and train them in seminary to meet the changing needs and demands of a new generation of biblically illiterate Americans?

HOLLON: As I speak to local rectors and bishops, I continually hear that young people are attending more traditional worship services. This was true in my own experience, since I planted a traditional Anglican church, and within a few years, we were filled with young families.  G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “decadence decays,” and I believe the decadence of Big Box Christianity is already in decay. Indeed, when I was a theology professor, I had my students do an annual field trip. We sent them into mega-churches with recording devices and had them create complete transcripts of the service. After the service, the students did an analysis to determine how much scripture was contained in the songs, prayers, sermons, talks, etc. 

Unsurprisingly, we discovered that these non-denominational mega churches could hardly be called “biblical” in any meaningful sense. We began using the phrase “post-biblical protestant evangelical” to describe what has happened to the evangelical church all over America. The tragedy is that Jesus Christ – the Word – is the only mediator between God and man. To think that we can worship God without the mediation of God’s Word is very strange and unchristian. This is why Anglicans must remain committed to the Prayerbook, which as we all know, is the bible itself arranged for prayer and worship. 

Certainly, different forms of music can be appropriate in church services, and different churchmanships within Anglicanism can glorify God. I would simply say that – whatever the future is for worship in Anglican Churches, that future needs to be guided by the Holy Spirit, saturated with the holy scriptures, grounded in the prayerbook, and directed by the need for clear and penetrating gospel communication. We need to trust that the gospel itself will be compelling to every generation. 

VOL: I have known and interviewed four presidents of TAS including John Rodgers, Peter Moore, Paul Zahl and latterly Henry (Laurie) Thompson. All were very able men with strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, they all possessed a high view of Christ; a commitment to the gospel, a pledge to evangelical Anglicanism in the school of men like Bishop Alfred Stanway, John Stott, J.I. Packer, and others. Will you maintain that tradition or do you have your own ideas of how to move forward in post-Christian America?

HOLLON: Trinity will most certainly continue in the tradition of theologically orthodox, gospel-centric, evangelical Anglicanism during my time here. In fact, we recently completed a strategic planning process, and one thing was clear from the beginning of that process: our vision and mission will remain the same. We are… 

an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition. In this fractured world, we desire to be a global center for Christian formation, producing outstanding leaders who can plant, renew, and grow churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

To this end we are forming Christian leaders for mission.

However, the context of our work has changed substantially. We are no longer the subversive evangelicals working against the progressive agenda of TEC leaders. We now serve the ACNA where most young church leaders have not been raised in the Anglican tradition. This requires us to be much more diligent in teaching the distinctives of the English Reformation and the Anglican way as it relates to history, theology, liturgy, ecclesiology, etc. We are focusing more effort on formation in the substance of the Anglican prayerbook tradition and helping our students become responsible members of the Anglican church at home and abroad. 

Our role, in this new context, is to help the ACNA build foundations for a unified, gospel-centric Province prepared for the challenges of an increasingly secular mission filed, right here in North American but also abroad. 

VOL: What particular skills do you bring to the table that will move the seminary forward in the coming years?

HOLLON: I was raised in a business-owning family. My grandfather founded Hollon Oil Company in 1946, and my father expanded the business to include, not only gas and oil distribution, but also a small chain of convenience stores and a small chain of quick lubes. In 1993, just after NAFTA was passed, Pennzoil asked my dad to develop a business in Northern Mexico. Dad invited me to help develop the plan and then manage the Mexican company. Thus, in my mid-twenties I was leading a small team of 12 employees in Reynosa Mexico and developing a distribution company that covered territory from Ciudad Victoria to Monterrey, up to Nuevo Laredo and over to Matamoros. It was a rich experience for a young person; I learned a great deal. After a few years of developing the Mexican business, I took on more responsibility with the American business before returning to seminary, which was difficult for my young family but grounded in a clear calling from God. The point is that my experience in business was very formative and is probably one of the factors which enables me to lead an institution like Trinity. Though I am a priest and a theologian at heart, I am intimately familiar with money management, personnel management, the importance of vision, strategy and risk, and much more. Even after going to graduate school and becoming a professor, I never lost the entrepreneurial bug. I developed and led the Center for Christian Faith and Culture at Malone, Planted St. John’s Anglican Church, and served as the Area Director for the C.S. Lewis Institute in Northeast, Ohio. All of those roles helped to prepare me for my current position. 

VOL: You are chair of the executive committee of the Society of Anglican Theologians, a fellowship group for scholars within the ACNA. You planted St. John’s Anglican Church in Canton in 2017, and served as its pastor for four years until it was able to call a rector. What was the average Sunday attendance (ASA) when you began and when you left?

HOLLON: Along with a handful of friends and colleagues, I helped get the Society of Anglican Theologians started and then served as chair for the first few years. Once I took the Dean President position at Trinity, I resigned as Chair and am now happy to be a member. 

My wife and I planted St. John’s in 2017, along with a group of friends. There were probably 20 people involved in our first few meetings, and we grew slowly during the four years when I led the church. When I stepped down in May of 2021, the ASA was around 70 people, and I believe it is a little higher than that now. Just last fall, St. John’s was gifted a wonderful church building and a sizable sum of money from a elderly congregation that decided to close down. I had approached that church about renting the facility several years before, but this was a wonderful and unexpected gift to the people of St. John’s. They moved into the new building at the beginning of 2024. It is a strong and healthy church. The priest serving now is a former student from Malone who completed his MDiv at Trinity – The Rev. Chad Sanner. David Beer, the deacon at St. John’s, was a good friend and colleague at Malone University. 

VOL: The seminary world is rapidly evolving with change among both liberal and evangelical seminaries. The Episcopal Church’s 11 seminaries are in rapid decline with more offering online courses rather than onsite learning because of the high cost of seminary education and fewer ordinands coming forward. Only Virginia Theological Seminary and Nashotah House seem to be holding their own. Nashotah House is solidly Anglo-Catholic, VTS has an evangelical president (Ian Markham) but theologically is more liberal, though not revisionist. I notice that TEC still lists TAS as an episcopal seminary, though the ‘E’ was dropped some years ago. Do you have any Episcopal students at TAS? Where is all this going in your opinion?

HOLLON: TAS officially disaffiliated from TEC several years ago, so we are no longer one of the 11 seminaries (there are 10 or fewer now). Of course, we welcome TEC students who can affirm our covenant and community standards, and we do have TEC students in our residential student body. They are not sent by bishops but come to Trinity because they align with our biblical fidelity and mission. 

We disaffiliated from TEC for several reasons. First, Trinity was highly influential in forming the leaders who would go on to develop the Anglican Church in North America. The ACNA is now our primary constituent; we want to serve this new Province as well as we possibly can. 

Second, and equally important, we disaffiliated from TEC because we do not want our students to consider the ACNA and TEC as two equal avenues for biblically faithful service in ministry. ACNA and TEC are not the same. Although there are a few faithful bishops remaining in TEC, seminary graduates who go on to serve in TEC churches, too often fall under the authority of bishops who have embraced falsehood. We owe it to our students to tell the truth about this, so we do. 

We certainly pray for the clergy and laity in TEC. We pray that they will remain steadfast in the faith and find the freedom to witness and serve faithfully in their own dioceses. We also hope, very sincerely, that we can be reunited with them in the future. But for now, our focus is on building up the ACNA and supporting the global realignment of Anglicanism. 

VOL: Even evangelical (non-denominational) seminaries like Gordon Conwell are suffering with fewer students stepping up to full time ministry. Gordon-Conwell announced last year that it planned to sell all or part of its 102-acre campus and relocate to the Boston area. Their president said the school no longer needs the entire campus because more students are taking online classes and a move to a smaller footprint would make more sense financially. Is TAS going to be forced to go online? In your mind where is all this going?

HOLLON: We believe that residential training is the gold standard for many reasons. Our students not only learn from Anglican professors on campus, they are also formed in the rhythms of Anglican prayer and worship through required attendance at morning and evening prayer in our chapel. They enjoy shared meals in our Common’s Hall daily, eucharistic celebrations every Wednesday and on red-letter days, regular service to the community of Ambridge, and much more. Residential Trinity students are introduced to the ACNA and the wider Anglican Communion during their time on campus since rectors, canons, bishops, and other global leaders visit on a regular basis. Our Ambridge campus is a global crossroads for biblically faithful, orthodox Anglicans. We have three Archbishops on our Board of Trustees along with many other bishops and clergy. No other seminary in the United States introduces students to the full scope of biblically faithful, orthodox Anglicanism the way that Trinity does. 

Our residential program will remain the gold standard, and we will continue to scholarship residential students very generously, ensuring that those who can relocate, continue to study at our residential campus. 

However, Trinity is also becoming much more accessible to the whole Province and to Anglican students around the world. We are currently revising our distance program so that students who study off campus have opportunities for church-based formation under the care of local clergy and lay leaders, even as they take some of their courses online and travel to Ambridge for intensive classes in January and June. Students are now able to earn the MDiv degree from Trinity without relocating to Ambridge. 

This is an important change, which we made because some students are simply unable to relocate. Those students who can’t relocate for a residential Trinity education are turning to non-Anglican seminaries, and we want to remove all roadblocks so that a Trinity education is accessible, while remaining distinctively Anglican. The majority of young clergy coming into the ACNA were not raised in the Anglican tradition, so it is crucial that they are introduced to the riches of our heritage, such as the theology of the 39 Articles, the history and theology of the prayerbook, Anglican liturgy and music, varieties of churchmanship, and much more. Trinity students, whether residential or distance, are well formed in these and other areas.

I believe it is entirely correct to say that Anglicanism offers an excellent way to be a Mere Christian, so our distinctives are worth saving and passing to the next generation because they convey the gospel in an incredibly  rich and compelling way. 

At Trinity, we can offer distinctively Anglican formation because our entire master’s level curriculum is tethered to the ACNA’s nine standards for the ordination of priests and because we will ensure that distance students receive mentored, local training in areas of ministry such as the prayerbook, homiletics, missions, evangelism, and more. Trinity exists to serve the Anglican Church in North American and other biblically faithful Anglicans at home and abroad. In the years to come, we will do everything we can to offer an excellent formative education to Anglican students, and we will enlist bishops, canons, priests, deacons, and laypersons to partner with us in that formation, residentially and at a distance. 

I should also note that we are just completing the new Trophimus Center, which is a total renovation and expansion of a large Presbyterian Church. The Center is less than a hundred yards from the ACNA’s provincial headquarters, so this new building will make it much easier for us to host gatherings for the whole ACNA. Even as we reach out to partner with ACNA diocese and parishes with online and church-based programs, we will invite the Province to Ambridge for conferences, classes, workshops, seminars, and more during each January and June intensive. In the very near future, you will begin to hear about provincial meetings in Ambridge, preaching conferences, music and liturgy conferences, and much more. Our residential community will become an increasingly important hub to gather the ACNA together even as we reach out and build new on-ramps for students who want to study at Trinity without moving across the country. 

There is much going at Trinity, so stay tuned. 

VOL: Thank you Dr. Hollon for your time.