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?

Sermon Notes, Proper 13 year C

Just a couple thoughts about preaching this Sunday.

I was wondering about the relationship of the brothers. Is there a way to talk about rivalry and resentment here? Jesus response about greed invites my thinking about Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street where he tell students that “greed is good.” How do we express an alternate ethic, and why – when and if greed gives us all sorts of pretty things?

I was thinking about how the purpose of money is, in part, to circulate, to share. This is in contrast with hoarding. The rich man hoards – invests – in food he will not eat to day but in some unspecified date in the future. Instead, Jesus says “eat now.” Bring tomorrow today. It reminds me how I often think that tomorrow is the best day to start a diet, rather than now.

The body needs blood to circulate; the economy needs money to circulate. So what is it that we hoard? What kind of hoarding stultifies our lives? Is it about sentimentality? Is it a critique of attachment? Or is it a warning that we are always idol making creatures, to easily collecting burdens we don’t need to have. Perhaps the message is “keep moving.” Or die.

On the Killing of Chris Stevens

Yesterday Chris Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, was killed by armed men, fundamentalists offended by a video produced here in the United States.  It was a horrible act, one that deserves condemnation.

The Ambassador, by all accounts, represented the best of our foreign service.  He did not get his job because of his contributions to the administration.  He was a career diplomat, someone who served the country through the challenging work of diplomacy.  It’s not an easy job, but it is crucial.  We do not appreciate these sorts of men and women enough.   A good diplomat often earns the respect of the country they serve.  Chris Stevens did.

Good diplomats are truly the first line of defense against aggression.

The initiating cause was a hate-video written for the incendiary purposes of terrifying non-Muslims and insulting the faithful.    They’re excuse:  to inform.  It’s like crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater in order to see if the exit signs work.  The authors are now in hiding – as they should be.  They are cowards.

We are fortunate to live in a country with free speech.  But in an interconnected world what we say gets heard in the rest of the world.    We should be prepared when what we say takes a knife into the hearts of others.

But we need not lose heart.  Plenty of Muslims in the world understand that this is not the American Government.  They also, however, have opportunists who benefit from harnessing violence.  And so the cycle of hate continues.

We need not agree with glib statements that religion causes violence.  In many places throughout the world in history religions have existed together.  But when people in power are themselves fearful and society is anxious, it’s easy to light a match under the feet of the worried and watch the world burn to distract attention upon themselves.

We are one of the few countries where religious tolerance, with some exceptions, is part of our DNA.  Yes, although the Mormons, Amish, Catholics, Atheists and Jews have all experienced hardships, by and large they were each able to carve out places in our public life.  That we have been able to do this is in part because of our beginnings.  John Locke, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson showed no intellectual favoritism; and this was shared by many of their countrymen.

So what we do matters.  It matters that we have protestants and Roman Catholics living side by side.  It matters that Hindus go to Indian restaurants owned by Muslims.  It matters that Jewish institutions finance interfaith works here in Westchester.  Because it reminds the world that different religions can live in peace.

But opportunists know how to fan the flames.  And that’s who we’re talking about.  Opportunists made the video.  Opportunists stormed the embassy.  Most Americans would find the video, itself, scandalous; and few Libyans would support the murder of innocents.  Even now, they are protesting the murders.

The world watches.  If we permit interfaith hatred, it illustrates to other countries that diversity of faith is a threat to social order.  But when we visit and trust our neighbors, we show a better way.  When anyone in our country encourages Islamophobia, we should be clear:  those are not our values.   It was appropriate for the president to say that America does not seek to insult people of different faiths – because it’s true.  Even George Bush called Islam a “noble religion.” “Nobility” aside, insulting others won’t bring peace.  Showing how we live together might.

We can demonstrate a different way.

Theory of Moral Sentiments 1:2-6

[This is part of my steady series of reading Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, one page at a time.]

What is sympathy?  The source is our ability to conceive or imagine the same emotion as someone else.   We flinch when we see someone else get hurt.  One itches, another itches.  One yawns, another yawn.  “Grief and joy affect the spectator with … painful or agreeable emotion.”  Smith also calls this “fellow-feeling.”

Even stories:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” – the bystander imagines the sentiments of the sufferer.

Smith distinguishes between pity, compassion and sympathy.  Pity and compassion are concerned with suffering, while sympathy is a more general term for all “fellow-feeling.”  “Sympathy” is Smith’s word that is Girard would say represents the mimetic nature of the human mind.

The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.

Sermon Prep, Pentecost X

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

A parishioner remarked “this is the time to discuss planned giving.”

I may, to shake it up a bit, begin with discussing why I love money.  I’ll declare I’m pretty rich – which I am, compared to most people in the world.  Just not compared to my neighbors.  And then my retirement plan.

There’s a bit more than simply “greed is bad” going on here.  Is it “greed is bad” and “you might die tomorrow”?  I remember tha bumper sticker:  whoever dies with the most toys wins.

Do I get political?  Billionaires who have died this year have been able to create little monarchies because they’ve been able to avoid paying taxes.

Richard Layard notes the limites of happiness.  Building a bigger barn won’t do it.

Catherine Caimano preaches a very good sermon, but I might try to make the challenges more severe.    there’s no way to get around the apocalyptic depth of the message.

Are we being encouraged to look busy?  To prepare for death?  Or Is Jesus implying, “don’t save up to party in the future!  Party now!”  Has the world so fallen apart, that our hands are the emergency rescue team for the earth?  And can we do it?   Should we?  Must we?

It is not an anti-abundance message, I suspect.  It is a challenge to acquisitiveness for its own sake.   Such tendencies are built on the foundation of our anxieties as we compare ourselves to others.   Why must we compare our lives so when the only judge we need to know is Jesus Christ?

The Tea Party

I’m in the midst of doing some community organizing in my county, and I’ve been struck by the contrast between the work I’ve been doing and what is happening in the tea party “movement.”

Some interesting social analysis has been done about them.  Most of the tea party is white.  They don’t want to be told what to do.  It represents the hyperindividualism that reflects part of our cultural consciousness, and the more recently cultivated antagonism toward the behemoth that is The Government.

Reasonable people can critique the “therapeutic state” and its diminishment of civil liberties.   Institutions, after all, engineer cultures (did you know that the English propensity toward tea was based primarily on a conscious decision to prefer Tea corporations to Coffee corporations?).   Anger toward corporations, generally, is well placed, even if tea partiers aren’t that consistent.

But the tea party, which seems proud that there is little leadership or organization, seems to be blind about the nature institutions, government and the public.  Their view is of the mass, “taking over” which is more like the cultural revolution (choose any) than of getting work done.

The tea “party” ignores that politics is about people in institutions.  Joe Schmoe is just a dude spouting off about paying taxes.  He’s got some anecdotes, and he’s pissed, but just because he knows his car’s broken doesn’t mean he knows how to fix it.   It just looks like another narcissistic blowhard who doesn’t know who’s responsible for his lowered standards.

Good Government requires some leadership and management skills.  Politicians will make difficult decisions.  If tea partiers don’t want leaders, and don’t think government should manage, their task is going to be incredibly challenging as they get stuck in their internal bickering.   They will perpetually seek a consensus that will never emerge.

No government will make everyone happy.   Kenneth Arrow showed, in my view, decisively that there is no perfect government or economic system.  Someone will feel screwed.   Perhaps the rich will find some of their money confiscated; or the middle class will find their pensions cut.  Sometimes liberty wins, sometimes security.  But in a democracy we live together whether we win, or lose.   Although I talked, admittedly, about emigrating to the Netherlands after Bush won a second election.

Leaders will inevitably disappoint some people.  It’s the nature of leaders that they get hit, that they compromise, and choose between two bad, or two good, decisions.   A tea party that isn’t sure what it wants, besides being left alone, and resists any leader trying to compromise between the various publics, will find itself just another discussion group, a loud mob unable to accomplish anything.

I have not been worried about the tea party because they do not take organizing seriously.  In someways, they are like some parts (not all, of course) left – get people angry, hold a couple marches, find some politician who says what you want to hear. The hard work of engaging communities, discerning their values, discovering what keeps people up at night, and then acting upon it, is substituted for quick fixes.  Like corporations, politicians and even some progressives, the tea party thinks there is a quick fix, and that is to vote the bums out.

It doesn’t work like that.  It’s one reason I fell in love with the church. Granted, plenty of priests try to find quick fixes.  The daily life of church, however, resists it. Although I believe there may need to be a reboot of the church,  bodies of people coming together are what the church does.  Perhaps we have not done so well at that over the last 30 years.  We’ve not been able to manage within the new economy of attention.  I don’t think it’s hopeless, but I do think it will require a different kind of work.  The tea-party illustrates what we should not be doing.

I’m not hard on the tea party.  As a reformed anarchist, I’m actually sympathetic, aside from it’s loose resentments that stem from race populism.  I wish that there were some elected officials who would really challenge the economic system.  As it is, some of the tea party officials seem like stooges for state capitalism.    Which is a lot different than democratic capitalism.

One of the reasons I think that democracy, and capitalism, are fruits of some hard consequences of Christian morality is because, in the case of democracy, we learn to lose some times; and when we win, we treat the losers with respect.  Battling things politically is far better than fighting a civil war.  In capitalism, we coordinate desires, trusting in each other’s ability to share goods (I’m not talking about the system of high finance).  They are held in tension – sometimes they contradict each other.   And then we should be able to learn to choose.

The tea party needs to learn how to live within the former.