Letter to the Editor: the saga at General Seminary

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from The Rev. M. Sylvia O. Vásquez, Rector St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Walnut Creek, California

 

Sylvia VasquezLast fall a terrible injustice was committed. Soon after the arrival of the dean, the Board of Trustees of General Seminary secretly changed the bylaws of GTS, the most egregious of which was to eliminate faculty input. When the faculty resisted the dean’s absurd leadership, the Board of Trustees, BoT, of General Seminary fired eight faculty members. The BoT’s eagerness to “accept faculty resignations” (resignations which were never offered), violated all the BoT’s own stated procedures. Using the language of resignation allowed the Board to ignore the process of dismissal appeals, appeals that fired faculty is entitled to. Clearly, they wanted above all to avoid transparency and discussion.

I was completely shocked. But the firing was not what shocked me most. What I found more alarming was that there appeared to be no sense of outrage from the larger Episcopal Church. I kept looking for statements from the office at “815”. I watched for articles from Episcopal News Service. An Episcopal institution of the stature and significance of GTS was hurtling into chaos and no one in authority raised an alarm.

We demand justice for others; yet, we sit by and allow them to fire eight tenured faculty members. We expect and call for transparency and accountability, but when the Board of Trustees (BoT) of this institution was questioned by the faculty and subsequently by other groups, as to their practices, the BoT shut down communication and the questions were re-directed to lawyers. We, TEC, pass multiple resolutions about injustice everywhere yet are very slow to live into it within our own church.

The short hand for all this is blatant hypocrisy.

The only place I saw reaction was on social media. Episcopal Café published articles and essays by people involved in the fiasco and the seminary professors (GTS8) who had been fired created a Facebook page. Several hundred people immediately signed up to join the discussion on Facebook, about the events leading up to and subsequent to the firings. Eventually there were well over 1,300 people in the discussion group for the GTS8. Mainstream media like the New York Times and Huffington Post picked up parts of the story. More than 100 professors of theology, among them noted theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, stood in solidarity with the faculty and refused to set foot on the campus. Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) began a petition to “reinstate the eight” as did MoveOn.org and thousands of people signed. The BoT remained unmoved.

Again, what I find so egregious is that we, the Episcopal Church, would be willing permit the Board of Trustees of GTS to damage and perhaps cause the demise of this venerable institution with no discussion about it. This is a serious issue that merits open dialogue and discussion. Yet, the pervasive ethos in this whole terrible saga is one of secrecy and silence.

Who does the Board of Trustees at GTS answer to? Who holds them accountable for their actions?

One would hope that the House of Bishops would have had the courage to respond to this great injustice. The House of Deputies only meets every three years, so I hoped Executive Council would have made some statement about it. But with the exception of a few individual bishops (Dietsche, Stokes, et al) there has been nothing but silence, sadly, including the office of the Presiding Bishop.

Thankfully, last fall, my own diocese passed a resolution about the situation at GTS with the support of our own diocesan, Bishop Marc Andrus. So far as I know, The Diocese of California is the only diocese that brought this issue for discussion to the floor of their convention. Here, Resolution on General Theological Seminary is the text of our resolution.

I have emails (that I received accidentally) from members of the BoT, stating they wanted to find a way to actively discourage other bishops from allowing resolutions such as ours from coming to their conventions. And, while that is problematic on its own, the real problem is that it points to a deeper more dangerous ethos in our church.

We are loath to hold each other accountable when we are acting unjustly.

We consistently model ways of hiding the truth, covering up unpleasantness, and looking the other way when confronted with hard issues. Just recently the dean of GTS wrote that the crisis of last fall is behind us and we should just move forward, he further stated that ATS accreditation is solid. Yet, only a limited number of people have seen the ATS report and the crisis is far from over. No changes have been implemented to avoid more of the same in the future. Is that denial or wishful thinking or misdirection? One thing it isn’t is genuine.

The Church is hypocritical. It is an accusation with which those who stay away from institutional religion charge us and when we allow stuff like this to go on—they are right. But more importantly, we wound the spirit of our church, we mess with the soul of who we are. We fail to honor our most primary sacrament: our Baptismal Covenant. The issues at GTS signal our incapacity to act as Christian disciples. If we cannot treat each other with dignity, justice and love, then we cannot offer that to the rest of the world with any kind of credibility. I’d say that is a crisis that we ignore at peril to the world with which we’ve been charged to transform.

We are being inauthentic Christians. We are playing at being the disciples of Jesus Christ. We are exemplifying false Christianity; empty of the power to change lives for the better. Our collective power to be agents of transformation is diminished. We are called to be “the salt of the earth, the light in the midst of darkness,” yet we have not noticed that our salt has gone flat and our lights are very dim. How can we move forward with integrity, to work on our mission as followers of Jesus Christ, with this stain on our collective soul?

I’m presenting a resolution to General Convention that will call for action on this issue. The spirit of TREC Resolution A001 is a start, but I think we need more. If you are interested in supporting this resolution, please contact me at svasquez@stpaulswc.org

(From the GTS website)

“Bound up in its very name, service to the Episcopal Church nationwide became central to the Seminary’s heritage. In 1817 the General Convention met in New York City and on May 26-27 these two Resolutions passed both Houses:

  • That it is expedient to establish a General Theological Seminary which may have the united support of the whole Church in the United States and be under the superintendence and control of the General Convention.
  • That the Seminary be located in the City of New York.”

Here is my proposed resolution: Rector Calls for GC78 Resolution

In Peace,

The Rev. M. Sylvia O. Vásquez, Rector

Image credit:  to Dot Cellini of the Diocese of New Jersey

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Lori Sbordone Rizzo
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Lori Sbordone Rizzo

GTS - an agent of transformation? GTS has existed on the west side of Manhattan for as long as I remember, and it has done nothing to transform the community in which it exists. As far as its neighbors know, its a gated community - a beautiful garden behind stone and iron bars where you are excluded if you're not a member. I attended GTS for a year, and I was disgusted by how little any of that community interacted with the neighborhood. It seemed like all the students saw of NYC was the curb in front of the seminary where they hailed a cab to go home on weekends. On the occasions when I tried to hold people accountable for this injustice, it was made painfully clear to me that opinions such as this were only more proof that I was not a member. In fact, as a commuting PT student, I was given no mailbox to receive mail from my instructors, no seat in chapel (I sat where the full members of GTS dumped their coats on the way in) I couldn't take a book out to work at home, and I was never asked to stay for a meal. In the years since I attended there, GTS has been contributed to gentrify the neighborhood by selling off its property to developers who built housing no one but the richest NYers could afford. They spent thousands in legal fees to get a variance to the existing zoning laws so they could build this for-profit housing. As a result, other developers used their precedent to build even more luxury housing, which proceeded in making the people who live in the NYCHA housing next door to GTS increasingly isolated in what was once their streets. So I guess I'd challenge the entire notion that GTS was ever really transformational.

My understanding is that the faculty threatened to resign. In the real world, when you do that to your boss, you are taking a risk. I am not sure any of these faculty understand what taking a risk actually means. I get that many are seeing this as a labor-vs-management issue, but to an outsider, it reminds me of the multi-million dollar athletes who refuse to play their sport until they are paid even more money. As much as I am pro-union, its hard to get passionately involved when the rich people fight with each other.

Honestly, the ECUSA has let so many injustices go by without speaking a word, I am neither shocked nor appalled at the lack of outrage over GTS. If it goes down, it will be just another institution that is out of touch. If there is a crisis in the EC, the problem is WAY DEEPER than the loss of GTS. If the trustees sold it to make way for a dollar store of a deli, at least the neighbors could go shopping there.

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Mark R. Collins
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I make no accusations, Mother Vasquez, only an observation. You say your Letter to the Editor represents your opinion, and I accept that. But in wording, rhetoric, and conclusion, it perfectly mirrors communications from the faculty and their lawyer. And your Letter comes at a time when, as another commenter noted, the faculty and their supporters are losing ground in the reconciliation process -- perhaps because their indignations and demands aren't holding up to more reasoned, interpersonal (rather than Internet) scrutiny. You may not be acting as anyone's proxy, but you couldn't be doing a better job of it if you tried.

As far as the social media atmosphere, I can only echo Gil Scott-Herron, the revolution will not be televised, and the reconciliation of the Body of Christ will not break forth from the comments section of a blog. All the sturm und drang is not action, not evaluation, not critical investigation, not advocacy, and certainly not justice -- it is typing. If you think you're working for justice and all you're doing is typing, you are not working for justice. And if you think you're witnessing injustice and all you're looking at is the screen of a laptop or smart phone, you are not a witness to anything. You're an audience member being shown what someone else has created, scripted, and edited to create a specific audience reaction -- and that's very far from being a witness -- just as far as it is from being a worker for justice.

If you wish to make your voice heard at General Convention, speak to the Deputies from your diocese. They'll let you know how to make your resolution known to other Deputies, and further its chances of being heard and considered on the floor of General Convention. There is a process for doing what you say you want to do that is public, transparent and effective, a process that circumvents the righteous Internet indignation of typist-'activists' -- which is very far from true righteousness.

(This post has been edited to meet our commenting guidelines - editor)

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Rev. Sylvia Vasquez
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Thank you for clarifying. I absolutely have only some of the information surrounding this issue. I asked for more information from 3 board members, all bishops, who declined to give me more information. I know nothing of their (BOT) motives, but am more concerned with the resulting damage done to the livelihood of 8 faculty and the stress placed on the students, and the rest of the staff. The BOT response was UNJUST. The injustice of the BOT and passiveness on the part of the larger TEC body about that injustice is at the heart of my letter.

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Rev. Sylvia Vasquez
Guest

Harry Merriman, Mark Collins, I'm not anyone's proxy. The views I expressed are my own and I wrote this letter because I have an opinion I wanted to share. I have no connection to the seminary or the faculty other than the fact that I am Episcopalian. Its offensive to me that you would assume I was representing anyone other than myself.

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Harry M. Merryman
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Harry M. Merryman

Rev. Vasquez,

Please re-read my posts. I have not accused you of "representing anyone other than [yourself]." I have said that your opinion contains factual errors and makes many incendiary and uncharitable accusations. If this response to your opinion is offensive to you, so be it.

Your response here begs the question: could it be that your outrage at the situation at GTS is similarly based on an incomplete and inaccurate reading of the facts and the motives of the people involved?

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Cynthia Katsarelis
Member

This is all sad. I'm not an academic, but I'm married to one who is employed at a research university. I can't imagine a Dean at a top research university getting away with saying "I love vaginas." He would be brought before the Office that handles equality and harassment. Out of fear of a lawsuit, the university would reprimand or fire him.

I don't know the whole picture, but that one statement alone casts a very long shadow on everyone's actions. Why the church would allow that misogyny when "real" universities wouldn't (even if it was only out of concern of lawsuits) boggles my mind.

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