Academics back dismissed faculty at troubled Episcopal seminary

By staff writers
October 11, 2014

US academics, including leading theologians, say they will not teach or lecture at General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York after most of its faculty were summarily dismissed in a dispute a fortnight ago.

The latest to rescind is leading Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of divinity and law at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, who has declined a series of prestigious lectures he was scheduled to give at the New York institution in November this year.

Over 900 scholars from across the United States, and a number of international colleagues, have signed a letter of support for the eight sacked faculty members at the troubled Episcopal Church seminary.

Those who declare they will not be involved with GTS until the situation is resolved justly include other notable figures such as James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary (a leading figure in Black theology), Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary, and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza of the Harvard Divinity School.

Eight of the ten full-time faculty members teaching at General Theological Seminary reported very serious problems with the seminary's administration through a number of channels some time ago.

Among their complaints were that the Dean and President shared a student’s academic records with people who were not authorised to see them, which would violate federal academic privacy law. They also complained about diminishing changes to the seminary's pattern of prayer and worship, high-handed behaviour, and ways of speaking that demeaned women and minority groups.

After being ignored "for months", they say, the eight faculty members wrote directly to the seminary's board of trustees about "a hostile work environment" overseen by the Very Rev Kurt Dunkle, and then undertook a legal work stoppage. A further letter to the board set out their concerns in direct terms. The board of trustees responded by accepting the faculty's 'resignations' when in fact and law no resignations had been tendered, thereby summarily dismissing them. Replacement staff are being hired.

The dismissed faculty members are Dr Joshua Davis, the Rev Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, Dr Deirdre Good, Dr David Hurd, Dr Andrew Irving, the Rev Andrew Kadel, the Rev Dr Amy Bentley Lamborn, and the Rev Dr Patrick Malloy. They have received overwhelming support from church members and fellow academics, and have established a 'Safe Seminary' website, a Facebook page with 1,100+ members, plus a twitter account (@safeseminary).

So far 210 individuals have subscribed £30,000 to a fund which aims to raise £40,000 by 15 October. "The purpose of this fundraiser is to provide them a small amount of financial assistance at this time and also to provide a platform for the larger community to show their support for their cause," says supporter Adam Wood.

GTS is a flagship seminary which has produced generations of bishops and noted theologians, and is the only Episcopal seminary overseen by the national church.

The chair of the GTS board of trustees, Bishop Mark Sisk, has agreed to a board meeting with the eight faculty members on 16 October, but has pointedly refused to rescind their sackings, which he persists in regarding as 'resignations'.

"I am aware that the faculty has made a constructive response that might offer a way forward. As things now stand, if there is no possibility of reconciliation, I would find it very difficult to give the Paddock Lectures," said Professor Hauerwas on 10 October.

“Bishop Sisk’s letter in return offered little hope that a resolution would be possible between the faculty and administrators,” he added. “I very much regret that this is the case.”

The board has attempted to "give the appearance of offering a conciliatory hand to the eight striking faculty members without actually engaging in a sincere effort at reconciliation", the sacked staff stated on 6 October.

In a further statement issued on 9 October they declared: "We are dismayed by the response of our church’s leaders to the situation at General Theological Seminary. When the eight of us brought to the Board of Trustees what we believe are extremely important issues affecting the fundamental life and mission of our seminary, we expected them to follow the procedures set out in both the seminary handbooks and our church canons. We believed they would establish a safe and non-hostile environment in which to carry out an impartial investigation. Instead, neither these procedures nor the substance of our concerns was honoured. We received only a compassionless and intimidating demand that we cooperate with a corporate law firm’s investigation.

"Even now, as we have lost our jobs for continuing to plead that these matters be addressed honourably, we cannot believe that our Presiding Bishop, the entire House of Bishops, and the good people who serve as trustees of GTS truly intend to punish those who have brought these issues to their attention. Nor do we think that they actually want to support and defend an environment of fear and anxiety that so many have told us they experience as humiliating. If they did intend to do these things, what message are they sending to Episcopal clergy and lay-persons? What would this say about the church’s respect for the vulnerable all around our country? What would this say about the moral conscience of our church’s leaders?

"We continue to hope – and believe – that our trust and confidence in the commitment to mercy and justice of the leaders of this great church are well founded, even if those qualities are not yet clearly evident. We have now agreed to a meeting with the Board of Trustees and stand ready to return to our work once they are prepared to reinstate us", say the faculty members, who have become known as 'the GTS8'.

During the 2013-14 school year, General Theological Seminary enrolled 70 students and had $10.6 million in expenditures and $27 million in investments, according to the Association of Theological Schools, reports Religion News Service. GTS had faced some $40 million of debt that it has been attempting to pay down through property sales and redevelopment.

* Safe Seminary website: http://www.safeseminary.org/

* Fund to support the GTS8: http://www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/support-the-gts8/243315

* 'Reinstate the faculty unjustly dismissed from General Theological Seminary', by Simon Barrow, Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20932

* Facebook page to promote a general petition for reinstatement of the eight GTS faculty: https://www.facebook.com/events/331354327039048/

* GTS8 general petition direct, on Change.org: http://www.change.org/p/board-of-trustees-of-general-theological-seminar...

[Ekk/3]

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