Notes on General Theological Seminary

Over the last several weeks, the General Theological Seminary, where I attended for a year after The Divinity School, has been embroiled in intense conflict between the faculty and the Dean, with the trustees firing (or, “accepting the resignation”) of the faculty.

Several friends, who have little to do with the church, have asked me, “what’s happening at your seminary?” Congregants send me articles from CNN and the NYTimes, confused whether this is important to us as a small church. I know many of the people involved: I respect the chair of the Board of Trustees, Bishop Mark Sisk; several trustees and the faculty involved are people I consider honorable and just.

I won’t be able to address the steps and missteps made: I don’t know what the entire story is. Some of the issues, I suspect, are so foundational and potentially ground-shaking that it’s hard to examine them clearly. They include: what should priests learn in our current cultural context? At one time (at least Episcopal) priests were expected to be the most widely read people in the room; now they are asked to be fundraisers, psychotherapists and CEOs. Is there something peculiar about theological education that’s different than other professionals? Should priests expect a middle class wage? What makes a competent priest? Holiness? What’s holiness? Effective repeating of the mass? Good management technique? Being entertaining at a cocktail parties?

Over the last few weeks social media has been the primary way information has been transmitted: I suggest that it has been a fairly crucial part of the debate. While helpful, I suggest it exacerbates passions and hardens sides; conflicting parties may find it harder to discern grace, as the internet compresses time and space. Common prayer is, in part, our antidote to the panopticon of the electronic medium, which renders many of us powerless to confront our own biases or inclinations. Admittedly, I’m not the sort who likes to refrain from social media, but the medium has made the message. So out of public ultimatums and public responses, the revealed dynamic lacks the easy grace that comes outside the internet, that happens in our incarnate world.

I’m also unclear about process. Do we have mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the different roles? I would think there was a different way to hold the dean and faculty accountable for each other. Perhaps these processes we have in place were either ineffective, or not given enough time to be used. It may be that the trustees were slow and unresponsive; and again perhaps the medium or social media has prevented alternative scenarios. If the dean had been fired on the spot, would the resulting litigation and expense been detrimental to the seminary? How would the ultimatums have worked in the time frame demanded? I don’t know the answer.

Furthermore, because General is a tight-knit place, I find that it’s hard to identify who should be responsible for what. Even effective democratic and cooperative institutions divide roles for their long term health, because we all cannot all be masters of everything. From my vantage point I can’t tell who’s truly responsible for the chapel; who is accountable for what and to who? For the financial oversight of the entire seminary; who’s responsible for the curriculum; and for the spiritual health of the students. I can’t parse who’s the judge, who’s the jury and who should be the executioner. And so there is a lot of confusion in the system. Or at least, I’m confused.

On a wider church level, however, I’m unsure if the church needs a General Seminary anymore. It breaks my heart to say it, but why not simply keeping the chapel as part of our national institution, then funding a few faculty at Union Seminary that do work specifically on issues of concern to Anglicans, forming a new institution that looked like a combination of Berkeley at Yale, Brent House at Chicago, and Bexley in Columbus.

As someone with an interest in the economics of firms (including the church), I’m always perplexed with why the church organizes as it does. I admit, I’ve always thought General had an important history and role – I learned more about prayer and music than I did anywhere else – but it seems that our wider church is not as committed as the passions indicate. We don’t fund GTS particularly well; our overall ability to collaborate with each other has had a very poor track record, and our loyalties seem to be getting in the way of good economic sense: or in theological speak, of stewarding our limited resources.

It seems to me simply this: there are too many seminaries, fewer full time positions, no sinecures, and lots of clergy in debt. It seems that our loyalty to our specific, free-standing institutions, our insistence that each seminary has a character outside of geography, gets in the way of our church as a body making reasonable decisions about the allocation of those resources. There may be a need for separate campuses in some sense, but we should examine how we can identify redundancy and spend more wisely. Fortunately, some – like Seabury / Bexley – are leading the way. I don’t think the way forward is particularly clear: the many seminaries, dioceses and General Convention itself seem to have competing ideas about our institutional needs.

I wonder if we’re training people to become priests for jobs that don’t exist. The positions open will not have the same kind of salaries, and the job descriptions most of us inherent will be different. Bishops are worried that priests won’t have the skills to create livable wages for themselves. No priest can expect on the generosity of a diocese to have a full time work; they have to be able to convince people that what they do is worth supporting. And this is a skill that few of us have instinctively – we’ve fallen into work where we simply expect people to know that what we do is worth it. Of course, there is the secret whisper that congregations imply: you got into this work knowing it wouldn’t pay, so why should we? In some sense, that reflects, also, the church’s poor history around labor. We support the labor movement, just not in our churches. Why? Not just because it’s expensive, but because we’re a lot less generous than we think we are. Granted, perhaps the church is saying something about what it truly thinks about the people who work for it.

I don’t think the issue is that we’ve become too corporate. Churches are, in some sense, the original corporation.  Just because we need to be more responsible about our resources does not mean we have succumbed to a “neo-liberal” model where clergy and faculty are contracted piecemeal for work. If anything, we’re paying the consequences of misunderstanding the needs of the world and have done a poor job of identifying what gifts we need to develop in the church, while simultaneously squandering our inheritance. There are good reasons to restructure. I am not suggesting the faculty at GTS misunderstands the challenges the church faces; and it does seem that the President forgot the another half of effective leadership. But the problem is much deeper, and certainly should not be solved solely at the faculty’s expense.

Long term solutions? I don’t know. Lots of the work we need to do isn’t merely financial, but would involved the merging different systems and cultures. What is the need for residential seminaries for a church that’s calling second career vocations with families? Is it possible to create formation in local churches, through an apprenticeship model? Perhaps we should build an apartment coop in NY for students, curates and clergy in poor congregations – building on the land of a church that isn’t able to survive: because the rent is too damned high. Or is there some overlap in work within our institutions that inhibits the wise investment in the people who will be the backbone of whatever comes? Pay fewer people more justly. Create an endowment so that the last two years of seminary be free for all who are accepted into the ordination process. And ensure that those who do make it through are guaranteed some benefit. Other possibilities? Maybe create, even, satellites in each province or diocese where ordinands can collaborate. I don’t see why reorganization would require us to pay faculty poorly and eliminate tenure. I believe we have the inheritance; I am unsure if we know where to place it.

I don’t see many of these ideas happening. I wonder if General Convention, and that’s all of us as Episcopalians, somewhere abdicated our collective responsibility in forming the clergy. If we were truly interested in developing leaders, we’d look at the entire structure of incentives that currently drives many reasonable, and potentially effective, people away from being priests. To enter into debt for a vocation to the priesthood does not indicate holiness or piety; if anything it shows more an inability to steward one’s own resources, a misunderstanding of the potential of lay power, and the limits of the formal authority of the clergy to herald the Kingdom.  What’s happening at General is data that entering the priesthood is a losing option for individuals.

On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, and evidence that, ironically, the spirit is working in the church. The conflict at General makes me wonder, Why Priests?

The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

Reparations

Last week’s readings included the story from Exodus where God gives instructions about how to eat the ritual meal that would become the Passover. Roast and eat lamb. One should stand, eating quickly.

I wish he had said something about bibs.

God then says he’s going to take the first born child and animal of every Egyptian. It seems a little harsh, right? Couldn’t we just say, “we’re off!” And make a couple threats? No need to keep on killing. But I suppose the story is to illustrate that our God has power and Pharaoh’s doesn’t.

I suspect this story has some economic content. It’s not about revenge; it’s about reparations. Pharaoh thought his wealth was his: he invested, right? He made the money. He just forgot that the property he had, was people. And they did the work. It wasn’t his wealth; it was the wealth created by God’s people, who cared for Egyptian children, plowed their fields and built their pyramids.

It wasn’t revenge, but compensation.

God could have asked for more. After all, the wealth isn’t just His People’s. It’s all his. Everything.

Recently a book revealing how American capitalism grew because of the torture used upon slaves, I think, highlights this point. Our economy has a system where we increase productivity, but we don’t pay people much. Go to a corporation and plenty of the middle managers, the drones, the cogs, working without much help, will recognize the management structure. There’ aren’t any whips, perhaps, just the fear of losing a salary, of being displaced.

But the gospel reminds us that we are fully interdependent. When we think the money’s all ours, watch out. There’s probably someone we aren’t paying.

Five Things to Know about Church Shopping

Originally posted on i feast therefore i am:

As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way:

1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our…

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On being wrong: a couple thoughts on Gaza

While away on vacation, I made the unwise move of keeping connected via wireless. So on the island of Isla Mujeres I was consistently reading the running commentary on Gaza. Remember this: if you want a good vacation, pack swim trunks, sunscreen, and – before leaving – create peace in the Middle East. I blame Netanyahu and Hamas for a terrible vacation. How can anyone have a good time when the world is burning?

Next time, the wireless is off.

First world problems.

Now that I’m back, to work with the interfaith gatherings and protests.

About a week ago, a group of local politicians gathered in downtown White Plains to declare their support for Israel. I’m not particularly offended, or surprised, by this activity: politicians cater to their constituents, and most Americans are pro-Israel. It is also one of those issues that the cost for support is little; the price for anything else could be disastrous, because there are enough individuals for which Israel is non-negotiable.

What pains me, however, is not that people are taking sides; but the consequence of having our public officials be unanimous in the contours the debate. There’s little room, even, for a healthy agnosticism, a willingness to suspend judgment, or universal empathy.  If anything, the dialogue is more truncated and limited among our public officials than among American Jewry or the Israeli public itself.

Unanimity invites the pernicious, anti-Semitic view that the Jews run American Politics. For that reason, we need healthy opposition, even if it may be wrong, by our public officials. It would be a benefit to our debate if we had a few elected representatives willing to get into more public discussions about our proper role.

Further, I wonder about the power of liberal Judaism in the debate. It saddens me that my friends, who deeply love Israel and yet do not share in the common racism evident in the twitter feeds of many Israelis, will find themselves shut out, dismissed, and ridiculed.

I believe that the issues are obscure; there are political stories that remain hidden.  I don’t understand everything that determines how the military decisions are getting made. It seems to me that a number of powerful Israelis were unconvinced that the war was necessary, but the Rubicon has been crossed.

However, I remain outraged at the collective punishment of the Gazans, and this time generally unimpressed with what passes for moral argument of the Israeli government. It seems true that we’re always inclined to hate our enemies and love our friends. Vengeance remains close to our hearts, and for most of us, its the fastest representation of justice. 

It is why the scriptures do not stop with justice. They also say, love mercy.

My Birthday

It’s was birthday on Friday. I’m entering a new marketing niche, on that caters to men about to go through midlife crises. Usually they’d be family men, but since I’m not really one of those, perhaps I can ignore the changes.

I told someone I’ve been a priest for nearly 18 years today. I’m not going to muse on what I’ve learned – I’ll wait for the anniversary of my ordination for that. But that’s 2/5ths of my entire life.

I didn’t have to teach on my birthday, and I had submitted my grades the day before. I started off my birthday at midnight by beginning The Desolation of Smaug. But now that I’m older, I couldn’t finish it.

I woke up and didn’t go to the gym.

My plan was to see if I could still squat 300 pounds. Or at least how close I could get. I’m not, actually, that far off.

My birthday was a luncheon with the presiding bishop. Not just myself, but with the NY clergy. The lunch was delicious and if clergy had such delicious lunches on a regular basis, I’m sure morale would improve, and also congregational leadership.

We had a rehearsal for the consecration. I left after 20 minutes as my role had finished. I had a birthday to celebrate.

My choice this year? Have beer with some friends at the local saloon, that had Avery Maharaja on tap; Godzilla in the Imax 3-d theater. It was a good B movie, but Bryan Cranston died way too soon. I finished the evening with a 2000 Clos de Vougeot Gran Cru by Jean Grivot.  It was good, but I think it should have been opened earlier. Either that, or it wasn’t kept as well as it should have been. Good sour cherry and licorice notes, earthy with some pepper and mushroom on the finish. I probably should have let it open for a couple hours beforehand.

But it was a good birthday.