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Dec 07, 2015

Lilly Endowment Supports High School Students’ Faith Exploration

The University of the South’s School of Theology has received a grant of $600,000 to support the Beecken Center’s SUMMA Theological Debate Camp, established to train high-school students in theological debate. It is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage young people to explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues, and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service.


SUMMA offers high school students tools for critical thinking, knowledge of the Christian theological tradition, skills in public speaking and debate, and cutting-edge engagement in the topics of religion and science, social ethics, and interfaith relations. On the first day of camp, a theologically based resolution is introduced, which becomes the focus of debate training throughout the 10-day experience.


The camp runs in the summer on the campus in Sewanee, Tenn., during which time students from across the country experience a college-type classroom atmosphere with challenging lectures and stimulating seminar discussions. Students also engage in typical camp activities with each day beginning and ending with prayer and contemplative reflection. 


The 2016 camp will be held from July 18 through 26. Registration and information about scholarships may be found at


SUMMA began as a pilot project in Arkansas, created by the Very Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller III, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Little Rock, Ark. Now SUMMA is a banner program of the Beecken Center of the School of Theology at the University of the South. It was founded in the confidence that knowledge and reason are foundational to faith.



Dr. Courtney Cowart, director of the Beecken Center, expressed gratitude upon receiving notification of the grant. “The Beecken Center is poised to undertake an exciting national expansion of SUMMA's recruitment efforts,” she said. “These resources, so generously provided by the Lilly Endowment, will enable the realization of Dr. Keller's vision of cultivating future leaders who have received the foundation of theological literacy and have developed a literacy of the heart that comes from learning to speak truth in love. To offer this experience and these gifts of the Anglican intellectual tradition to a national, multi-cultural, and multi-denominational cross section of teenagers is a great honor and a joy. With this grant the Beecken Center looks forward to recruiting larger, more diverse classes of SUMMA debaters than ever before.”


The University of the South is one of 82 schools participating in the initiative. The schools are located in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Although some schools are independent, many reflect the religious heritage of their founding traditions. These traditions include Baptist, Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches, as well as Roman Catholic, non-denominational, Pentecostal and historic African-American Christian communities.


“These colleges and universities are well-positioned to reach out to high school students in this way,” said Dr. Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at the Endowment. “They have outstanding faculty in theology and religion who know how to help young people explore the wisdom of religious traditions and apply these insights to contemporary challenges.”


The Endowment is giving $44.5 million in grants to help a select group of private four-year colleges and universities around the nation to create the institutes. The grants are part of the Endowment’s commitment to identify and cultivate a cadre of theologically minded youth who will become leaders in church and society.


An additional grant to the Forum for Theological Exploration will establish a program that will bring together leaders of the high school youth theology institutes to foster mutual learning and support.