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 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.

A Lenten Discipline

I’ve decided to blog daily during Lent. I’m often erratic when writing.

I’ll use the daily office as inspiration. That’s an Anglican thing.

Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other words.

One of my struggles is about voice. Do I write like an academic, working through abstract concepts and relating them to the gospel?

Or do I tell stories?

Do I analyze the work of the priesthood? I could share stories of my failures. Priests usually tell of their successes.  I find those boring.

Tell me what doesn’t work.

I have a friend who is a very successful pastor. He creates programs, and announces them, and people go. Granted, he has a staff and resources. I envy him.

Evening prayer inspires me to think about being rescued. What does it mean to be resuced from being a target? Anyone who is in a position of authority, formal or informal, will find themselves the object of scrutiny.

Sometimes this is just: authorities can be corrupt. They may be wrong.

Other times it is an excuse.

For now, my goal is simply to write. Daily. In writing, let me find my redemption.

On Distributing Ashes at the Train Station

Today I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station.  It’s apparently controversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.

It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and has decided it will never leave.  Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.

At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk.  It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in.  To keep my hands warm, I’d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.

I stood still, as I didn’t want to be pushy, merely present.  Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s anxieties or hurt anyone’s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.

People said, “I heard about this.” Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people they’re all going to die.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” said another. This?

“Can you do this?” Am I allowed? Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, I didn’t say. I have a license. Continue reading

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

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.

Simon Doonan Holds a Grudge: On the Proper Understanding of Forgiveness

Simon Doonan writes about the healing power of holding a grudge and challenges our “softy” culture.

I understand the sentiment.  Who doesn’t love a grudge?

Fortunately, his description of forgiveness is far from the church’s practice.   Forgiveness should not to diminish the worth of our own suffering, or to make us a nation of push-overs.  Forgiveness- or in the sacraments of the church, absolution – requires a depth of spirit.  For this reason, it is regulated.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded.  One cannot command someone to forgive, just as one cannot tell someone to “feel better.”  That’s emotional manipulation and blackmail.  The victim of a rape cannot be told to forgive; nor can the person’s mother forgive on the victim’s behalf.

Forgiveness also does not substitute for divine justice.  Liberal Christians may define hell all sorts of ways, but let us not forget what it’s there for.  It’s there so that we have a conceptual place for people who are certainly guilty of all sorts of crimes against humanity we cannot imagine doing ourselves, people obviously beyond our moral universe.  It’s there to say to the sociopaths among us that, even if the SEC won’t get you, God will.

For if Simon is saying, let’s us not abandon justice for the sake of forgiveness, he is perfectly right.

Fortunately, that’s not what tradition expects.

We don’t ask for forgiveness on behalf of other people.  If my friend gets murdered, I may ask God for forgiveness for my desire for revenge; but not for my murdered friend’s murderer.  And of course, I may choose instead to let God make whatever decisions about the murderer’s soul.  My hate can be my own.  I’ll let God do the hard work.

Nor should we forgive people who haven’t asked.  We forgive when people seriously and earnestly repent.  When they stop the excuses, the explaining, and recognize their fault and sin, THEN we can begin.  In these cases, the community of faithful people, through the church, may offer absolution.

This does not replace, of course, the demands of the law.

Certainly in the everyday work of living, we will get slighted and bruised.  These do not require forgiveness.  Instead, it is enough that a faithful person learn not to be offended, and to maintain one’s integrity in doing the work of life and seek the magnanimity and joy in life which we believe God wants for us.  An insult to me may merit indifference more than forgiveness.

The church believes in forgiveness, through the sacrament of confession, because it believes it forms a moral conscience, and it limits the damage victims also cause others harm.  We are rarely simply perpetrators or victims; we both cause harm and we receive it.  So t0 forgive has a task: to stop passing victimization along.

To forgive and absolve was handled carefully through the clergy class.   It was understood as a divine act, a gift, an opportunity to begin anew.  God is, by nature, terrifying, fearsome and jealous; the church could be alternately kind and merciful when the penitent came to his or her senses.  It was not meant to be casual or easy, but an opportunity to confirm a sense of right and wrong: a sense of order.

So although grudges are enjoyable, they are rarely helpful. They may have a place in our private imaginations, but they diminish our public life.  Our resentment may be full of error and misplaced pride as much as an expression of injustice.  Holding a grudge cannot replace restoring justice.  I share, for example, Simon’s outrage about the killing of elephants for ivory.  But I am not interested in either forgiveness or holding a grudge.  It should simply stop.  Now.

Our knowledge of goodness and sin are limited.  So we set limits to our behavior and to who has permission to forgive and absolve.  We believe, or hope, that there is eternal justice.  We know we may each be guilty; or vindicated.  But finally we will err on the side of mercy.

After my mother died, however, I ran into a famous poet who had been her mentor.  I’d discovered another time that he’d surreptitiously done great harm to her career.  When he discovered who I was, he said, “I always regretted not giving her the help she deserved.”

I told him to get a priest.