by George Clifford
In the recent dispute between eight faculty members and the administration at General Theological Seminary (GTS), where is Jesus? In asking that question, I intentionally echo the desire of a group of first century Greeks who approached the disciple Philip saying, “We wish to see Jesus.” That desire encapsulates the hope that both inquirers and communicants still bring to the Church and seminarians bring to their years in seminary. Where is Jesus in the dispute at GTS?
On the one hand, I am dismayed that the dissenting members of the faculty refused to attend community worship services at GTS. Praying together defines who we are as Episcopalians. I don’t understand their decision not to teach classes. GTS is presently a rather fragile institution, both in terms of its enrollment and finances. Declining to teach seems a last ditch measure, akin to a strike that poses an existential threat to a business. Clearly, the dissenting faculty members appreciate the significance of their refusal to teach and believe that they have good cause for taking such a dramatic action. Is there really no way to speak prophetically, effectively, and pastorally? Regardless, I remain dismayed by their decision not to join in corporate worship. Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies, those who hate us, those who persecute us, and even our fellow Christians. Surely, all parties to this dispute are Christians who can pray together, so that in the midst of the conflict, they might bear witness to Jesus and the watching world might see him.
One of the valuable characteristics of our corporate prayer is that our worship is scripted, mostly in the Book of Common Prayer. This makes it difficult to use the words or forms of prayer as a cudgel with which to beat persons with whom we disagree. I understand people declining to receive Holy Communion, if one does not feel in a state of grace. But disputants refusing to pray together? In our various ministries of reconciliation, do we not encourage alienated parties to pray together, to seek God’s presence and wisdom?
On the other hand, I am dismayed by the public actions of GTS’s administration, both its Dean-President and Board. My concern is not primarily with the details of the dispute or potential solutions, but with seeing Jesus revealed in the actions of GTS’s leadership. Although I have read with interest the statements issued by the Board and Dean, and those issued by the dissenting faculty, I remain largely unaware of specifics. I do not know enough about GTS and its problems to speculate intelligently about possible, let alone preferable or optimal, ways to resolve the issues.
Leadership consists of persuading other people to join in achieving the leader’s goals or vision. Jesus practiced servant leadership, a leadership style marked, in part, by humility, honesty, genuine concern for others, healthy relationships, and reconciliation. If the public statements of the Board and Dean express humility, I confess to having failed to recognize that sentiment when I read the documents. Relational difficulties usually entail missteps on both sides. Servant leaders appropriately take the initiative (i.e., they lead) by honestly acknowledging their missteps. Again, if communiqués from the Dean and Board acknowledge missteps, I confess to having missed it. Healing broken work relationships often begins by identifying common ground, e.g., a shared commitment to Jesus, to GTS, to theological education, etc. Identifying common ground does not involve hypocritically ignoring differences; instead, finding common ground helps to build the trust and mutual respect vital for people to cooperate in spite of sharp disagreements. Reconciliation—a reuniting that presumes forgiveness and amendment of life—is a longer-term endeavor that rests on a foundation of humility, honesty, and healthy relationships.
The GTS disputants appear to be polarized rather than reconciling with one another. Of course, it is possible that GTS’s leadership has been humble, honest about their missteps, sought to heal broken relationships, and taken the first steps toward reconciliation in private communications with the dissident faculty. However, all I can see, and all that most Episcopalians and most people to whom we are to show Jesus can see, is the public side of the dispute. I wonder how many other observers are asking, Where is Jesus?
As I wrote the first draft of this post, The Most Rev. Frank Griswold had agreed to mediate at a meeting between the GTS Board and dissident faculty members. That meeting has now occurred. The Board, in a statement issued following its October meeting, emphasized that forming leaders for the Church is GTS’s priority, reported that an independent investigation found insufficient justification for terminating the Dean, invited the dissident faculty to reconsider their position, and identified scriptures for meditation.
If the Board’s statement represents an early step in a long process toward healing and reconciliation, I can see a trace of Jesus. However, that hope may be unduly optimistic. The statement seems short on humility, acknowledges no missteps, and does not highlight any common ground with the dissident faculty. In what is now a very public dispute, at least some elements of those moves need to be public in order to achieve reconciliation, healing, and show Jesus to a broken, skeptical world.
Perhaps what ails The Episcopal Church in general, and GTS in particular, is that we are dim mirrors or poor imitators of Jesus. Replacing biblical literalism with a progressive interpretation that incorporates advances in human knowledge from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities has let the light of God shine more clearly and fully in our lives. However, that shift has diminished our use of explicitly biblical images and Christian theology, the language and concepts that define Christians as a distinctive people. An invitation to meditate on texts, included at the end of a statement and with no indication of how God’s light shining through those windows has changed the Board’s thinking, can easily appear as window dressing rather than as a substantive engagement with scripture.
Switching metaphors, maybe we (and I include myself in that we) are no longer very skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff. We value the wheat of inclusivity and welcoming all, but confuse it with the chaff of relativism. We value the wheat of rights, participatory democracy, and community, but confuse it with the chaff of individualism. We value the wheat of integrity, but confuse it with the chaff of unresolved conflict. We value the wheat of loving others, but confuse it with the chaff of self-fulfillment.
My hope, my prayer, is in time we, and non-Episcopalian Christians and non-Christians, may all see Jesus in the dispute at GTS and in its ongoing resolution.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.