In case you didn’t know, The Episcopal Church has a seminary in New York City. Given the strains of organized religion these days, it has gone through challenges ranging from threats of insolvency to student attrition. Through it all “General” (General Theological Seminary) has honorably muddled through. You might imagine the seminary’s corporate management has wrung its hands over recent years through such fits and starts.
Indeed, the Board of Trustees has resolved to keep the place on track. So far this a simple story but what happened next reveals a more unsettling narrative about why Americans are suspicious of institutions to include institutional religion. When it comes to things that matter you know where their hearts are and they ain’t with you.
A new dean was hired for General, and by lapse and significant indiscretion, his behavior was interpreted as insensitive to a diverse seminary population. His claim of “actions out of context” might have explained some things but this is a holy community. Moreover, it is the context for a denomination proud of its liberality and sensitivity to gender and sexuality.
So far this reads as an employment issue: 1) head of organization (dean) doing and saying goofy things, 2) employees (faculty) complain and rebel, 3) and a board of directors (trustees) making determination. And they did…by firing the eight faculty members who complained. So how is this confusing?
It is unsettling because we expect the Church to be the exception to the culture not to copy it. This gathering of students and religious scholars is a devotional community more than a graduate school because it is built on the foundational teachings of Jesus Christ. (Even the secular reader of this blog can pick up on the different value system supposedly at work here.)
One might say that there is an abiding collective care at work among the members of the General community and even one of a mutual confessional nature; i.e., when members are aggrieved and hurting, understanding, justice and reconciliation would be applied.
Sadly, that did not happen: The Board of Trustees fired the complainants quickly. During past weeks any number of prelates, alums, past faculty, even the local bishop have pleaded for a reversal of this action. And that’s where things stand now: a negotiation for moderation which would re-instate those who objected to the dean’s intrusive behavior. All better now?
No. In the center of the property is a chapel, symbolic for the location because one must direct steps by it on the way to class. From there, on some liturgical days, the bounds of the property are walked in procession because the land is declared set apart and special for a holy purpose. It is for study, preparation, contemplation, even a daring-stretching thought for growth. All guided toward knowing Jesus, the Christ, and to make him known. And somehow we took it for granted that this was a safe place to do that for all…whoever they might be.
Everyone might be back in their seats, the faculty is almost rehired, and even a dean might be admonished but how did this crisis occur at all? Could it be that the Board of Trustees attended to the order and decorum of the institution rather than the untidy needs of the people in the community? Apparently so. That was then and this is now.
Back on track, the institutional trustees can now do something very un-corporate in nature: they can trade in that first thought of protecting the organization for the welfare and safety of the people who walk the path past that chapel every day.