General Theological Seminary and Progressive Christianity

General Theological Seminary and Progressive Christianity October 11, 2014

gtsThe crisis at General Theological Seminary probably hasn’t been felt very far beyond the walls of The Episcopal Church. That’s not surprising. General is hardly a large seminary and, like most of our denomination’s seminaries, its faculty and student body is comparatively homogeneous, denominationally speaking. But the crisis has certainly rocked our little corner of the church-world. In part, because the dispute between General’s faculty and its President-Dean became the instant subject of conversation in the social media; in part, because the out-sized board represents such a large slice of the church’s life; and, in part, because the unique history of General’s founding makes it a creature of the national Church, its General Convention, the House of Bishops, and – by inference – the concern of the church’s Presiding Bishop.

It’s a cause of deep dismay for that reason, to follow the dispute as an Episcopalian, a priest of the church, and as an academic.  I am dismayed by the failure of my fellow Episcopalians to listen to one another.  I am dismayed by the failure of the institution’s leadership to take action that clearly and unequivocally protects the marginalized.  I am dismayed at the way in which not only the vocational and personal lives of the eight faculty members can be up-ended with a parenthetical, “who the hell do they think they are?”  And I am dismayed to find that the values we all assume are held dear across the denomination can be so easily ignored. Even if one assumes the worst and one concludes that the faculty was heard by the board, but didn’t like the answer it received; even if one assumes that the faculty over-reacted and gave the board an ultimatum (it’s him or it’s us); and even if the board and the seminary’s leadership were embarrassed by the faculty’s decision to go public with the announcement that they were organizing in response — and that’s a lot of assumptions – nonetheless, it’s hard to understand why the faculty wasn’t taken more seriously and why they weren’t treated with more respect.

Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason the faculty has been treated so callously is because our commitment to progressive Christianity is a fragile thing, rooted more in a commitment to progressive political views than it is to views grounded in an understanding of God’s will.  So, when something like the situation at General happens, those progressive views are easily sacrificed in the name of maintaining control over the institution’s future.  After all, there is no one among the principle players who is considered fundamentalist or conservative.  There is no basic difference in worldview and no difference in denominational pedigree.  What there is is a difference in opinion about the quality of the seminary’s leadership and, by inference, the direction provided by the board. And therein lies a dynamic that the larger church should note.

What the situation at General makes clear is that the progressive church is opposed to sexist and racist language, until it’s not; it’s committed to defending employees and providing them with health insurance, until it’s not; and it’s committed to listening and freedom of expression, until it’s not.  Why are those commitments so fragile?  Because progressive political goals, like all political goals, are socially defined; they are tied to a place, a context, and a moment; they are conditioned by desire, ambition, and the desire for control; and, as such, they are a means to an end – completely dispensable if the situation changes and those values get in the way. So, maybe it’s time for a worn-out, old idea:

  • That worn-out old idea that God expects men and women to respect one another, because we are, together, bearers of God’s image…
  • That worn-out old idea that God has commanded tolerance, because God is blind to race, gender, and sexual orientation…
  • That worn-out old idea that the vulnerable should be protected, because we are, in fact, all vulnerable…
  • That worn-out old idea that we should love, because we have been loved…
  • That worn out idea that we should sacrifice, compromise, and forgive,because it’s not all about us, our needs, our politics, our place, or time…

Those commitments are “fovever,” not “until,” because God’s grace and love are immeasurable, never equaled by what we have done, never to be matched by what we might do, unconditioned by our goals and objectives.  In other words, maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the progressive church to abandon its self-conscious, eyes-on-the-mirror quest to be “progressive” and just try to be the Body of Christ instead. That commitment may or may not have saved the jobs and families of the faculty at General Theological Seminary. It may not have saved the Seminary itself.  And it may not have spared the church’s big-city leadership small-town embarrassment.  Heaven knows, those transcendent commitments have been violated over and over again throughout the history of the church. But it might have alerted everyone involved to the fact that a handful of political values weren’t all that was at stake.  Know it or not, now a lot more is.  The church and its seminaries are called to serve Christ and in serving Christ, they are called to live by a different set of standards.  The seminary hasn’t and, as such, it has failed to model a different way of living for its students and the world.  Someone should have taken their eyes off of the mirror and looked up.

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