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The difficulties of follow-my-leader

27 February 2015

Jane Shaw explains the background to the recent US theological-college disputes

TWO Episcopalian seminaries in the United States have experienced recently a stand-off between the President and Board of Trustees on one side, and the faculty on the other.

At the General Theological Seminary in New York, eight of the faculty stopped teaching and threatened to resign unless the Board listened to their concerns about the hostile working environment, which, they alleged, had been created by the President's actions. Rather than grant them an audience with the Board, the President and Board took their letter as a resignation. Seven of the eight faculty members were subsequently reinstated - but with only a year's contract. The President remains.

In 2013, the faculty at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took a vote of no confidence in their President. This winter, she resigned.

On the one side, the seminary Presidents and Boards would probably argue that they had to force through changes for the institutions to survive. On the other side, the faculty would point to leaders who were more managerial than theological, and who did not consult them, or attempt to draw on their wisdom and experience. 

UNLIKE Anglican theological colleges in England, the Episcopal Church's seminaries in the US are free-standing entities that have to survive in the marketplace. Ordinands in the Episcopal Church pay for their own theological education - unlike their counterparts in the Church of England. The traditional, three-year residential course - the "bread and butter" of those seminaries - has declined in recent years. Ordinands with later vocations have not wished to uproot their families; and the uncertainty of employment in a Church with no curacy system, when the Protestant mainline Churches are in decline, has made this more expensive form of ordination training more risky.

The seminaries that have survived and thrived are those with a large endowment (Virginia Theological Seminary), or those attached to a leading university, such as Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Others have sought to attract a range of students by multiplying their degree and course offerings, and offering a mixture of online, residential, and non-residential education. Some have sold buildings to create an endowment - most notably Episcopal Divinity School and General Seminary, both now sitting on desirable property.

Because the seminaries are individual entities, the Episcopal Church has never had the central authority to create a master plan for theological education. Not everyone agreed with theological-college closures in recent decades in the Church of England, but central planning and forward thinking were possible in a way that they were not in the Episcopal Church.

HOW do you lead theological institutions in times of real uncertainty and change? That is a question for churches as much as for theological colleges and seminaries. The Church of England has recently produced a series of reports suggesting some solutions, but it has done so largely without consultation. The recent turbulence at Episcopal Divinity School and General Theological Seminary serves as a warning that the Church needs theologically trained leaders who, crucially, can carry people with them in implementing changes for survival and growth. 

Canon Jane Shaw is Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

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