Support the Café

Search our Site

Power and authority–at GTS and in the church

Power and authority–at GTS and in the church

by Jesse Zink

On June 6, 1952, the trustees of the University of the South considered a report urging them to admit black students. By a vote of 45-12, they declined. On June 9, the dean of the School of Theology, Francis Craighill Brown, and seven other faculty members sent a letter to the trustees asking them to reconsider the decision. The letter included the sentence, that if the trustees did not change their position, “We are without exception prepared to resign our positions.”

The trustees denied the request. The faculty resigned (though not until the end of the academic year).

As an historian, I am always looking for precedent and parallel for current events. The Sewanee example came to mind as I read of the awful conflict at The General Theological Seminary, if for no other reason than the numbers. Eight GTS faculty members have “been resigned” as part of a dispute with the dean and board.

Although I have no special knowledge of the GTS conflict beyond what everyone else is reading, it seems safe to say it involves at the least a breakdown in relationship between a dean and the faculty. But I think we can gain insight into the state of our church by a (no doubt premature and definitely imperfect) comparison between Sewanee 1952 and General 2014.

The Sewanee conflict revealed an obvious fault-line in the church over the issue of race. There are many other examples of such conflict in the church in that period. Like American society as a whole, church members were torn about how far and how fast to go with racial integration. (Lest we forget, two Episcopal bishops were among those who wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham in 1963, urging him to slow down. He responded with “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”)

So what fault-line does the General conflict reveal in the church? It seems to be part of a broader concern—anxiety even—about how Christians wield and exercise power, authority, and leadership in this day and age. The response to the recent report of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church was notable for the way it focused, in some quarters, on the amount of power given to the presiding bishop, as if the Task Force had talked about nothing else. Not long ago, the pastoral relationship between a bishop and his diocese completely broke down over the wielding of authority. Anecdotally, there are no shortage of stories of serious and sustained conflict in congregations. In the last decade, the church has invested huge energy in revising its disciplinary canons. Individually, there is good reason to focus on all of these issues. Taken together, they are an indication of where we are investing our energy.

The anxiety about power and authority comes at a time when these ideas are very much under stress in society at large. Congress, one major source of authority in this country, fails to function. Institutions with authority of various kinds—banks, sports leagues, municipal police forces—are all being revealed to have feet of clay. The organizations that do have authority—tech companies, advertising agencies, shadowy “Super PACs”—seem more like amorphous networks than formal institutions. Power is (at least appears to be) more diffuse than ever before. People feel like they have less control over their own lives.

These anxieties are particularly acute in mainline denominations, which are seeing a vast shrinking of our power and resources. (Most, if not all, of the Sewanee 8 were hired at other Episcopal seminaries. It’s hard to see any seminary having the resources to hire the General faculty if they wanted to.) We have constantly tried to theologize this—the post-Constantanian church; the opportunities that come from being peripheral not central—and there is merit to this. But that doesn’t address our uncertainty, nor does it address the fact that some kind of authority still needs to exercised. And then General happens—and the conflict over differing models of authority, leadership, and power is laid bare for all to see.

The thought I am left with in these last few days is that conflicts over power, authority, and leadership are signs of an institution in decline. (I don’t mean General, per se; I mean the church as a whole.) This is not always the case, of course, but the trend lines seem clear: when an organization is growing and confident, there is more to share around; when not, not. It may be that some of our church institutions need to decline—but let’s talk about that openly, rather than launching hugely destructive battles with one another. (Again, I don’t mean General but the church as a whole.)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the General conflict (as I understand it) is its lack of theological edge. It appears to be entirely about authority and leadership. Imagine, for a moment, an explicitly theological conflict at General of the same intensity, say about the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Historically, these are the big questions seminaries fall apart over. (If you are having trouble imagining a genuinely theological conflict in the Episcopal Church, well, so am I. And we should think about what that says about the church.)

As a church, we are still looking for productive ways to acknowledge not only the opportunity the future holds for Christians—and I believe along with many others that the future holds great potential for the church—but also the very real anxiety many people have about how that future will unfold. One step in this direction would be to begin to talk about these issues in a genuinely theological way. What do Christians mean when we talk about authority? How (for instance) does the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection inform our understanding of Christian leadership? What does it mean to have power in the church? How is it wielded? When I served as a student representative on the board of an Episcopal seminary, we had lots of conversations about how the seminary needed to train “entrepreneurial leaders” for the future. We never once considered how leadership in the church might be different than leadership in the business world, the world with which so many of my fellow board members were familiar. The General conflict exploded into public view on the same weekend that Paul’s hymn to Christ’s kenosis (Philippians 2.1-13) was the Epistle reading in church. Surely we can find some wisdom there?

In the face of mounting pressure from across the church, within a year the trustees of the University of the South had changed their mind. The most embarrassing moment came when Jim Pike, then dean of St. John the Divine, refused an honorary degree. We can pray that the disaster at General may one day be a footnote in a fine institution’s history. In the meantime, I hope that it may be an opportunity at last for fruitful and honest conversations about how as Christians we confront the anxieties about power, authority, and leadership that exist in our church and in society at large.

(Too little about the Sewanee resignations is available online. My source was David Sumner’s, The Episcopal Church’s History 1945-1985, now sadly out of print.)

The Rev. Jesse Zink is a priest in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a doctoral student in African Christian history, and the author, most recently, of “Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.”


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Eric Bonetti

My sense is that GTS is a microcosm of not just TEC, but society as a whoie. With the decline in civil society, we see a degree of self-centeredness that is appalling. Consider the CANA crowd’s argument about the Dennis Canon, which is that it was somehow enacted behind their back. Yet the reality is almost every one of the leaders of the CANA movement was ordained after the Dennis Canon was enacted, and took a solemn oath to be subject to the discipline of the church.

Similarly, there’s the ludicrous argument floating about that the Afoordable Health Care legislation is somehow unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has upheld the law as constitutional. Moral of story: If you don’t like the outcome, just revise history or the meaning of words to suit yourself–no ethical issue involved.

A similar paradigm often pertains at the parish level, in which folks jostle for power and control, oblivious to the fact that they are the same folks who, when their parish closes, will lament the fact by saying, “But it was such a friendly and welcoming parish.” And issues like the canons, which assign specific roles to clergy, vestries, and others, typically never are even considered by parish bullies–all that matters is that they are in control.

A solution? Just like racism, as a church we need to drag these issues, like vampires into the sun, and openly address them, including providing “healthy church” training. One good example is the diocese of Southern VA, which has a formal document on normative behaviors.


I’m struck by the following passage:

“Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the General conflict (as I understand it) is its lack of theological edge. It appears to be entirely about authority and leadership.”

But since when are authority, leadership, power, etc. not theological issues — perhaps the most basic ones of all? Does an issue really have be about Communion to count as theological?

[Benjamin: please sign your full name when you comment. Thanks, Editor]

The Rev. John Farrell, Ph.D.

Some Thoughts on General From a Retired Priest

Just when one thought things had stabilized at the General Theological Seminary, catastrophic developments occurred with astounding rapidity. The faculty wrote a set of demands to the trustees who responded by accepting their resignations or firing them (depending on which version one accepts). People are angry, dismayed, shocked, troubled, and disturbed. The Episcopal Church’s detractors, which seem legion sometimes, can barely restrain their glee.

After a period of numbness, during which I was initially in sympathy with the faculty, I have sorted out my own thoughts. My reaction is: a pox on all your houses. The whole lot is to blame.

From the beginning, the faculty’s enterprise was doomed to failure. The tone of their original letter to the trustees and circulated to students was much more intransigent and arbitrary than the passages people like to cite. For instance, practically everything I read reports that the faculty gently asked the board to “restore and ensure that the faculty members be afforded due process in connection with all appointments, worship and formation, and the implementation of our curriculum.” My reading of another section of the text, however, reveals an undebatable demand, “That action be taken to empower the faculty with immediate oversight over the curriculum, schedule, worship, and overall program of formation for the seminary.”

Similarly, the faculty’s supposedly reasonable desire for a meeting with the trustees was framed imperiously, “The immediate appointment of a committee of Board members, to be determined by the faculty, to meet with us to discuss conditions necessary for moving forward as an institution during the October meeting of the Board of Trustees.” The faculty was, in effect, saying, “we’ll meet, but with whom we designate, not with anyone you name. At which time they may hand over the running of the seminary to us.”

At this stage I cannot bring myself to support the faculty. Arrogant and naive is my reading of their behavior. They are eight people who purport to know better than anyone so are willing to stop an institution to get their way. Not only won’t they teach and attend meeting, they refuse to worship with their students and their alleged adversaries. That last part was the deal-breaker for me. How un-Anglican! If we can’t engage in common prayer, then who are we? Acting on the advice of a labor lawyer, they wrote a hardball letter and are now dismayed a panicked Board of Trustees called their bluff. Faculty politics is not a game of brinksmanship and tough language. Academic disputes are usually slow-moving, conducted in civil, even stately, language, punctilious about procedure. The outmost limits of such disputes usually culminate in a vote of no confidence, not a work stoppage out of the blue.

As an academic myself I believe in the principles of shared governance. But there are procedures and protocols to achieve those goals. There are also procedures and protocols to deal with protest. No one seems to be following the same rule book. Accordingly, I have reached three conclusions:

• The faculty went beyond the parameters of legitimate dissent to become as arbitrary as the man they wish to unseat. They are finished at GTS. Who can ever trust them again?

• I have never met Dean Dunkle, but the unrefuted reports about him suggest he is tactl;ess, vulgar, and authoritarian. He is a lawyer with no academic background and little experience in Holy Orders. As a gay man, I can’t help but wondering if the Dean’s reflections making General not a “gay seminary,” but rather one that admits “normal people,” makes me wonder if I and other minorities might find ourselves unwelcome there. He should never have been appointed. And after the chaos of the last few days, his position is untenable and he must go.

• My opinion of the Board of Trustees is that they are not up to the task. The board is largely comprised of retired bishops, parish priests, and alumni of General. It looks like for many of them it’s a stepping-stone or resting place. There are none of the types of people one usually sees on boards of this nature. Where are the academicians from other institutions, lawyers, financial experts, philanthropists, CPAs, etc.? The board needs to resign en masse and let the General Convention take its obligation seriously to elect a new board next year at General Convention.

I think the professors, dean, and trustees were living in an ivory tower in one crucial sense. Seminaries are hothouse environments that ignore many of the realities outside their self-enclosed bubbles. I remember my own seminary as a cauldron of gossip, rumor, petty strivings, toadying, dysfunction, and elitism that became meaningless outside its gates. I suspect General is no different. Many of these professors are wildly popular amongst students and alumni and have large personal followings. One of them was the successful catalyst that toppled a Dean and President in the 1990s. The Dean is clearly a man on a mission. The trustees are in over their heads.

To paraphrase William Cowper:

They are monarchs of all they survey,

Their right there is none to dispute;

From the centre all round to the sea,

They’re lords of the smart but not astute.

As far as I am concerned, if the General Theological Seminary is to survive, it needs a complete overhaul.

Steve Helmreich

This reminds me of the Concordia Seminary / Seminex split in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in the 1970’s. The Board of Control of the seminary unilaterally “retired” four professors. Later about 40 went on strike and were fired after a month for breach of contract. In addition to the theological issues involved (Biblical interpretation, Law/Gospel distinction) there were issues of power and authority — how do we relate to each other in the church.

Jesse Zink

Ruth: thanks for the comment and picking up on that line. I agree with your identification of these as theological issues. If I had to write this again, what I would want to say is that our theological debates are often not presented in theological terms—instead, some other gloss is given to the issue. I would love for the church to talk about our theological anthropology—an issue that underlies same-sex marriage as well as other issues—but that rarely seems to grab the headlines.

Much more to write on this, but if I did I’d have another article before I know it so best stop here.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café