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?

Interfaith Relationships

One of the pleasures of my work is the opportunity to work with pastors of many different traditions. White Plains has some very talented clergy.

More recently our group has gotten much more diverse – and much larger.

We have historically African-American churches, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Rabbis, two Episcopalians, a Unitarian, and a Buddhist.

The prayers are, of course, broad. But we’ve gotten in the habit of charity. We have learned to translate each other’s traditions. When people say that religions are the source of violence, I have counter data.

Collaboration without rivalry allows us to better address our local needs. Today we heard a speaker discussing the needs of the elderly population. We discussed ways we can better partner with each other.

I think it’s one virtue the church must train: collaboration. It’s not instinctive in a culture where spectacle and self-promotion leads to pretty things. Sharing leadership, seeking each other’s welfare, taking joy in other’s successes, that takes spiritual work.

And in the long run, the benefits are worth it.

The Pope’s Remarks

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Many people were probably politely surprised at the pope’s reticence toward judging gay people.  It did invite a stronger inquiry in the church’s formal perspective, and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.  The church has a public doctrine that it  maintains; and then there is pastoral practice, one framed by a monosexual group of privately gay – tolerant men.

The Anglican Church prioritizes pastoral practice:  we begin our understanding with prayer and relationship (or, as ++Rowan once said, doctrine must begin with joy).  Our lens is primarily liturgical rather than doctrinal, which is why some Anglican theologians have said Anglican “doctrine” is in the rubrics:  in how we pray together.  This makes creates an enormous leap to even start talking about sexuality:  how do we pray that, anyway?

Some are a bit upset that Francis remains intractable about women’s ordination.  I think he was simply stating his current vantage point, while also inviting an opening for deeper thinking.  Those outside the church continue to be irritated, but I’m not always sure why people think being a priest is a good thing.  Priests remain ignored by their congregations on most important matters.  Garry Wills even argues it’s a failed vocation.

Nuns, by and large, do a lot of the heavy lifting in the church, and although they have little ecclesial power, their institutions matter equally, if not more so.  Sometimes being seemingly marginalized gives one greater power.

Francis could still appoint a female cardinal.

Emory and the politics of compromise

The president of Emory has gotten quite the ass-kicking for calling the 3/5s rule an example of a good compromise.  I admit, I’m perplexed by the push back in part because I’m skeptical of the counterfactual histories his critics presume.

Certainly the best thing was for all people at all times to recognize the immediate humanity of all people.  It would have been desirable and magnificent if such could have been an option.

But we are far from that time.  Can we know how those founders thought?  Certainly counting blacks completely would have given them some humanity; but it would have mainly strengthened southern power:  they wouldn’t have been able to vote.

The most moral option would have been for Southern States to admit they were wrong and the voting rights of their slaves.  But, however luscious and joyful such an image is, it was probably not an option anyone considered.  Unpropertied white men couldn’t vote either.

Perhaps not counting slaves at all would have been the just option, given they had no real representation.  But in that case, we would not have had a country.  And it also signifies that slaves were not actually people.

I do not think that this compromise was the best world.  In my world, if I were God, all people have always been equal, brilliant, understand evolution, the big bang, and math.  We would all love everyone.  But in a different world, one I do not understand, perhaps the 3/5’s rule was a compromise that was worthy.  One does not need to believe that slavery or the dehumanization of blacks was moral to also acknowledge that we make compromises that are imperfect, frail and open to change.  As this one was.  The better option for blacks at this time – counting as nothing – may have been worse in the long run.  We do not know.

But I do think the president of Emory has been misunderstood by well-meaning people.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.

Do Churches Need Denominations?

A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations.   He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.

Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness.  Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours.   Lutherans chant.  Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings.   However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.

But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together.  They can harness resources.  They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors.  They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy.   They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.

So yes, churches need denominational structures. Continue reading