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.”