Two lay theologians write to the House of Bishops

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

and Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

were first year graduate students in the Th.D. program at the General Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2014. They have published the following letter to the House of Bishops, which is currently meeting at Salt Lake City in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

This letter should be seen in the context of a recent public relations campaign by the General Theological Seminary promoting the seminary in its current manifestation. These posts are mostly entitled: “General Voices: Why I stand with the General Theological Seminary.” They can be viewed at this link. The Seminary has been selective in which voices it presents on this news feed. For instance the sermon by Hershey Mallette at the commencement day eucharist is not included. Thus it is appropriate that the voice of these two General Theological Seminary students get wide circulation as these other posts have.

 

“A Truthful Blue Book Report on the State of The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church”

Dear Bishops of The Episcopal Church,

We write to you as former doctoral students at General Theological Seminary (GTS) who were forced to withdraw from our programs last fall because of the administration’s mishandled response to the recent crisis at the seminary. We are concerned about the disastrous toll this crisis has taken not only on particular persons’ livelihoods and vocations at GTS but also about the future of theological education and ultimately the future of the church. Our purpose, therefore, is to offer an honest theological and ethical perspective on theological education as it is rooted in the ministry of all the baptized and to call upon you to help lead the whole church into a much needed conversation about theological education’s important place in the mission and ministry of the whole body of Christ.

You recently received a communication from eight of the bishops who sit on the Board of Trustees of GTS. That letter expressed great anxiety that the church’s ministry, across all mainline denominations, is facing a rapidly changing world to which it must readily adapt. As the bishops put it, “The Episcopal Church is not the same church it was 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. Life has changed; our context for mission and ministry have changed [sic]. Systems must be more agile, adaptive and lean.” These bishops now call upon you to join them in solidarity by justifying their actions during this crisis on the basis of a decisive need for change.

And indeed the administration of GTS has made widespread changes to the basic structures of GTS: a full tenured Faculty has been reduced almost completely to replaceable adjunct labor; an institution formerly premised on the basic baptismal notion of the collaboration of all members of the community has been transformed into an insulated hierarchy in which collaborative community has no place; the seminary now exempts itself from requirements for safe space, failing to provide basic structures of accountability for accusations of discrimination and harassment; students are now understood to be consumers, bishops and dioceses customers. Worse still, these bishops have failed to tell you the disastrous effect these changes have had on the basic building blocks of every institution: its people.

In their letter to you, the eight bishops made no mention of the great exodus of students these last few months; nothing of the fact that seven of the eight protesting Faculty are gone; nothing of the decimation of the only ThD program in an Episcopal seminary to which we are witnesses; nothing of the staggering loss of staff; nothing of the considerable financial and psychological cost their intransigence has exacted not only on students but also on their families and loved ones; nothing of the few, dejected, and considerably ill-formed MDiv, MA, and other students that remain. They know that the seminary’s substantial endowment has been egregiously mismanaged and that the incoming class of Fall 2014 was reduced by 30% by mid-semester.

Scholars, postulants for priesthood, deacons, lay theologians, spiritual directors, faculty members, and others—we all came to GTS because we discerned that this was a place committed to nurturing the flourishing of our baptismal vocations and our spiritual gifts. We believed our vocations for theological education belonged to the church and its ministry, not academia, and that GTS was the place to nourish those gifts. But the Dean and Board treated our vocations as commodities to be bought and sold. The seminary’s response to its crisis was dehumanizing to us, and it has maligned the baptismal dignity of persons involved: faculty members and students like us, as well as our spouses, partners, and children, our homes and our jobs.

Even now the seminary sends fundraising letters from current students who used to be our colleagues and other invested parties of faculty and alumni. Such responses are shortsighted, as are the “remaining faculty” whose silence allowed injustice to thrive, and the “replacement faculty” who have sought personal advancement at others’ expense. They are shortsighted and callous because they ignore the ways we, along with the Faculty, have become the collateral damage of “change,” treated as less than human, and how our families’ lives have been turned upside down. These appeals give no account of the children of faculty members and students who have been removed from their homes and their schools; how spouses and partners have lost friends, employment, and church homes; how basic spiritual discernment and even faith have been disrupted. They do not mention that some have been pushed out of the church, for good. As bishops of the church called to care for all members of Christ’s body, this should concern you greatly.

Thus, in the light of what change has meant for the real lives of people caught in the middle of this conflict, the attempt of these eight bishops to associate the crisis at GTS with an undeniable need for change, which all mainline churches are facing, is shameful in its cynicism and deceit. In no way have the actions of the Dean and Board of Trustees of GTS during this long crisis been truly concerned with the future of the church in the new mission field to which all baptized Christians are called. Rather, their actions represent the intransigence of obsolete structures operating at their very worst to bend the gospel of Jesus Christ to their own interests.

Indeed, while Dean Dunkle himself called for this same sort of change in his peculiar widely circulated letter to “the beloveds of God’s church in the world” (October 3, 2014) he also obliquely suggested that the Faculty represented “entrenched interests eager (and vocal) to return to the ‘way it used to be at General.’” By framing their letter in terms of the demand for change amidst a changing world, these eight bishops likewise intentionally cast the conflict at GTS as one between the visionary leadership of a forward-looking Dean and a recalcitrant, privileged Faculty. We can tell you, however, that this is an intentional and scandalous misrepresentation.

The vision the Faculty set forth in their Way of Wisdom declaration proposed widespread and comprehensive changes to the entire curriculum and mode of life at the seminary. Clearly the Faculty are not resistant to change; they were concerned, however, with the kind of change necessary to theological education and its place at GTS and in the wider church. Their bold and visionary declaration respected theological education as a basic gift that belongs to the ministry of all the baptized. In it, these Faculty also gave our own gifts a place, truly carving out a space for our voices and our particular ministries within the church. It is an expansive and inclusive vision. Contrast this with the administration’s diminutive vision of change—an insulated world for which GTS’s “Close,” with its wrought-iron gates, is a perfect metaphor—which is fixated on a leadership of exception and domination and workers as cheap, replaceable labor.

Misrepresenting the truth of the situation at GTS, as these eight bishops and other recent communications from the seminary have done, helps no one. It further empowers a floundering and aimless Dean and Board of Trustees, while specifically inhibiting the kind of true healing that is necessary at GTS. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents us from having the more pressing conversation about the real integrity of theological education within the mission of the church and its importance to our future. This is a conversation we as lay theologians are eager to engage in, and one to which the Faculty at GTS offered a comprehensive vision in their Way of Wisdom declaration. Unfortunately, that vision was largely silenced by the leadership of the seminary.

Our common calling in baptism carries specific ethical obligations. As we seek to be faithful to the mission of God in this world, we all vow in baptism to seek justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we align our lives with the most basic dictum of Israel’s Torah: God’s gratuitous creation of humanity in the image and likeness of the living God. In Genesis, that image is tied in a special way to our work, the charge we are given to tend and nurture the flourishing of creation and one another’s lives. What is often translated as our “having dominion” over creation really means we are to attend to the world’s needs, to sustain it and the lives of our fellow creatures. That labor is what God’s image in us is.

This is why Scripture speaks so passionately against the mistreatment and exploitation of laborers. When our work is most free, most vitally alive, then the image of God is most fully realized and creation itself flourishes. But the oppression, frustration, or exploitation of laborers and their work not only hinders life but assaults human dignity and, by extension, God’s good creation. Laborers share in God’s own creative labor. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that any attempt to connect the kind of change God wants for us to the exploitation and mistreatment of human labor is simply a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Sabbath is thus more than rest from labor; it is the celebration that reveals our sharing in God’s eternal delight in creating (Exod 31:15). We attend especially to the needs of the “poor” and “oppressed,” the “orphaned” and “widowed,” the “stranger” because they are the ones for whom we labor. They are the ones most likely to be forgotten or shut out from the dignified care of creation. Managers are commanded not to withhold wages until morning because to do so, as Leviticus says, is to “steal from” (“oppress,” “extort”) the laborer (Lev 19:13). Isaiah insists that religious practices are meaningless when coupled with the unjust treatment of workers (Isa 58:3). The New Testament is no different. James commands Christians not to extort wages because the cries of the worker goes immediately to God’s ears (Jas 5:4). Jesus comes announcing the light burden of those who bear his yoke. Indeed, the very biblical vision of salvation is summarized in the moment when shalom and justice (or fairness) kiss each other (Ps 85:10). In the economy of God’s work of salvation, no labor is truly for “buying” and “selling” but exists only for the proliferation of God’s shalom. Shalom is not simply “peace” (or the absence of conflict) but the active presence of restoration, renewal, righteousness, justice—the wholeness of relationship. Unfair and inequitable treatment of workers is a sin against God’s shalom, a violation of human dignity, and so of God’s creation.

All catholic Christian communities acknowledge the importance of this link between labor and the image of God, and so also the place of labor rights in social ethics. Vatican II’s Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), for example, declares: “Among the basic rights of [the human person] (personae humanae) is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people” (III.2.68), linking this basic right explicitly to the dignity of the image of God (I.12). Our own General Convention has passed numerous recent resolutions, echoing Gaudium et Spes (see, e.g., resolutions 2006-C008, 2006-A125, 2006-D047, 2009- D039, 2009-C083, 2009-D032, and especially 2012-D028). Indeed, our Book of Common Prayer clearly affirms that that our social obligations are inseparable from our daily life as baptized Christians.

If this is the guiding vision of Scripture, our Christian heritage, and our common baptismal vocation; if this is the vision that stands at the root of the basic ethical teaching of the Christian church; if this is what God wills for those who labor to proclaim salvation—how, may we ask, is it possible that the Christian men and women of General’s Board of Trustees, some of them bishops of the church, have treated us, other students and staff, and especially the protesting Faculty as they have?

It is this biblical ethics that the Board has most egregiously distorted in their treatment of the Faculty. Having sought respectfully and discreetly to correct the breakdown in their working relationship with the Dean, and under conditions that they found increasingly unbearable, the Faculty were ignored or rebuffed. Warning leaders on repeated occasions that the situation was reaching a breaking point, no action was taken. And when they finally acted in such a way that they could no longer be ignored, asking simply that the Board meet with them, they were summarily fired. That decision cannot plausibly be defended as consistent with Christian witness, theology, ethics, or the church’s mission. It is, by all scriptural accounts, a violation of the dignity of the image of God, pure and simple.

These facts are of special concern to us as doctoral students at GTS. Because we are lay theologians, the spiritual gifts bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit at baptism are for teaching and service to the church through theological education. This is our work as baptized members of Christ’s body. These gifts and that work belong in the church. It is the only place they can truly thrive. However, the actions of the seminary’s leadership this year have said to the whole church that these gifts are superfluous, expendable products to be bought and sold like commodities. They have turned away our deepest desires to serve Christ in the church and the world, and have left us to fend for ourselves.

In her recent Commencement Address at GTS, the Presiding Bishop praised this leadership, saying that sometimes we need “reckless” leaders to make the changes necessary for our survival in the future. Dear bishops, the kind of change enacted by the Dean, Board, and these eight bishops, including the Presiding Bishop, requires us all to be willing publicly to embrace the violation of the most basic dignity of human life as revealed to us in Scripture, to build a future for our church that explicitly refuses to participate in God’s own way of working and creating. It is a church in which our gifts have no place; where we are expendable and our labor is exploited; where, instead of being integral members of the Body of Christ, we are all of us reduced to numbers in an accounting ledger, customers and consumers only. Such a future is opposed to all that we are as The Episcopal Church. It is opposed to the ethical orientation of our common baptism. It is opposed to Scripture and God’s will for the church’s mission in the world.

Here, we commend to you once again the faculty’s Way of Wisdom declaration as a true, biblical vision of change. They claim that truly transformative change in theological education will actively reconnect with the life of the church in order to recover its purpose within the mission and ministry of all the baptized. It will reject the false separation of spiritual life from theological reflection because it has distorted the purpose of teaching in the Church’s life and damaged the formation of laypersons, priests, and bishops. It will promote collaborative work across the whole church to promote an integration of theological education with the mission and ministry of the whole church, an extension of our baptismal mission in the world.

Baptismal life is in fact our most basic vocation as Christians. Martin Luther said that baptism, though it only happens once, is a reality we never get beyond, but is a daily “dying and rising” with Christ. The Spirit richly bestows distinct gifts on the whole church in the baptisms of each one of us. Those who receive gifts for theological education fulfill their baptismal calling in their labor of service to the whole church. The church has no other mission than to deepen and expand the ministry these gifts support. Not even ordination transcends our basic baptismal calling, but only deepens it. In this water-bath of rebirth, we all set our faces with Jesus toward Jerusalem, marked with his cross forever. And marked as his own, we are never free to commend any system that impugns this basic baptismal vocation. We are not free to define “value” in any other terms.

Two paths stand before us: one paved by the labor of all the baptized, the other by those who claim power and use it to perpetuate outdated systems that rule our world. What kind of future our church will have depends on the kind of change we now enact. For we have much to give the church that is built up by our common baptismal labor; indeed, we will give the whole of our lives and all that we are. If the future of the church lies with the vision of change offered by the Dean, the eight bishops, and the Board of GTS, then our work, our lives, our families, our wellbeing, they are all as expendable as these eight brave faulty members. We pray you will choose the way of wisdom.

With urgency and in the Peace of Christ,

J. David Belcher and Shane R. Brinegar

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6 comments

  1. Thank you for telling the truth. The entire situation at General has been shameful and is more evidence the church is far too concerned with its institutional life, power, and money.

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  2. Thank you for this letter. The truth must be told to all members of the church. As an alumna, Class of 1976, I have been appalled at the callous treatment, by the Dean and the members of the Board of Trustees, of the faculty, the students, the staff, the community on the Close, and the alumni/ae. Alums who have expressed concern have been dismissed as trouble-makers, further alienating those who have been formed by The General Theological Seminary. I, for one, have little hope for the future of my alma mater under this current administration.

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  3. A powerful, truthful and positive response not only to the GTS events, but also to the promulgation of TREC — latter just as concerned primarily about the “organized” church and not about her people. Prayerfully, TEC Bishops will “…read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of David and Shane.

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  4. And all this could have been avoided if the faculty had taken responsibility for bringing about change, WAY before The Way of Wisdom. That said, a seminary (or any other institution of higher learning is at its core, the faculty. and to think that administrators can walk in and decree change when a faculty is resisting it, or too slow in adopting it, is to live in an administrative bubble.

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  5. Well spoken.
    Thank you for these courageous words of truth.
    God help General Theological Seminary and God save us from our enlightened best intentions.
    From a grateful, but now very sad and disappointed, alumnus.
    Pastor Michael Ryan ’03

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