Prague theological seminary thrives despite surrounding atheistic culture
November 8, 2012
The Protestant churches in this capital city of the Czech Republic ― where more than 80 percent of the population is officially atheist ― hold periodic “open houses” to welcome the curious and the hostile.
“These are very popular,” says Jan Roskovec, vice-dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty (PTF) here, the largest Protestant theological seminary in the country. “Frequently we hear, ‘I’m not a member ― I didn’t even know I could come in.’”
This lack of comprehension of the church is a particular challenge to theological educators in the Czech Republic. “How to even do theology in such a secularized society is very difficult for us,” Roskovec says. “Most people have no idea what a church could be … and there’s no expectation or interest in what the church might have to say about anything.”
And yet, PTF is thriving, with more than 700 students in its three academic programs ― Protestant theology (200), social work (400) and ecumenical studies (100). It also offers a Ph.D. in theology in theology ― about 60 students.
It wasn’t always thus ― the PTF’s history closely tracks that of the Czech Republic. Originally known as the Hus Czechoslovak Protestant Theological Faculty, the seminary was founded in 1919 after World War I when full religious freedom was established in the new Czechoslovak state, which had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In its first year, the PTF had 14 students, but grew quickly to nearly 200 by 1930. During the Nazi occupation, the school was shut down and during the communist period (1948-1989) struggled to survive under pervasive oppression.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the PTF again experienced rapid growth and prosperity. “We had a large influx of students during the 1990s,” Roskovek says, “but in the beginning they were not particularly interested in professional ministry. They are no longer the majority, but it’s still a challenge to teach church-based theology.”
Though the PTF is legally independent of the church ― the PC(USA)’s partner church here is the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (ECCB) ― “the informal relationships are very close,” Roskovec says. A PTF degree and successful completion of an internship are required for ordination in the ECCB.
Like many U.S. seminaries, the PTF struggles with its academic institution versus ministerial training program identity. “It’s not exactly a tension,” Roskovec says, “but a problem to be solved … In any event, we teach practical theology and our internships frequently become conduits for pastoral calls.”
The PTF is also robustly ecumenical and international. It is actively engaged in the Erasmus Program ― a European Union program of student and teacher exchanges that brings between 10 and 15 theological students to the PTF from other EU countries each year.
“And we are very happy to have one U.S. student this year from Columbia Theological Seminary,” says Vera Fritzova, director of the PTF’s international department. “Over the years we have also had relationships with Princeton, Pittsburgh and San Francisco seminaries in the U.S.,” she added.
“Yes, we are very interested in pursuing relationships with PC(USA) seminaries,” Roskovec says.