October 4, 2014

Generally Speaking

One would have to be living under a paving tile if not a rock not to have heard of the turmoil that has been under way at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I won't go into the details here, as the unfolding of this tragic conflict has been amply covered on blogs and websites and in social media. I would be tempted to say it is like watching a slow-motion trainwreck, were it not for the fact that the Internet has enabled what appear to me to be rather hasty quid-pro-quo reaction and counter-reaction, as well as a halo of commentary.

I take a good bit of this personally. I am an alumnus, having graduated in 1997. I was the valedictory preacher, and in my sermon heightened the tension between the seminary as "an institution" and as "God's treasury" — with my strong preference for regarding it more wholesomely as the latter. Two of the faculty from whom I learned the most while there, Drs. Good and Hurd, are among the eight faculty most touched by the current conflict. I have met the Dean in the past, and shared a meal with him at Dr. Good's table in what I can only regard as happier days. I know members of the Board of Trustees, including Bishop Sisk, with whom I have worked closely and whose prudence and judgment I have long admired. So, much of this appears to me, emotionally, to be an example of bad things happening to good people.

And it is difficult to set those emotions aside, especially given the haste and the form of the charges, counter-charges, and reactions. Rush to judgment seems to have become the watchword, rather than due process and careful consideration. In particular, it seems to me that interpreting the job action by the eight faculty as resignation from their positions is not a helpful approach. At the same time, it seems prejudicial to allow the Dean to continue functioning in the face of what at least some feel to be substantial complaints, rather than imposing a form of administrative leave to allow a cooling off period.

Some of this appears to me to be systematic and institutional: I'm on record as not being a big fan of Boards of Trustees in general; nor do I think it wise to vest too much power in a Dean (and President), as I believe academies function best as collegial bodies in which the faculty have the principal governing role — led, but not dominated by, a Dean. It is helpful to note that in the 1832 statutes of the seminary, the deanship rotated on an annual basis among the faculty in order of seniority, and the principle functions of the Dean were coordinative and administrative. All major decisions concerning curriculum were to be made collegially. One detail gives an idea of the Dean's scope of action: the school Janitor is to report directly to the Dean.

Most importantly, as tempting as analogies are, it is a misunderstanding to map other structures onto the peculiar academy which is the General Theological Seminary. The Dean is not to the Faculty as a Rector to a Vestry, far less a congregation. (If there is a "vestry" it is the Board of Trustees, though even there the analogy breaks down on almost all counts.) Given that this is a seminary and not a secular school, it is also important not to map its situation too closely to that even of a secular academy. For one thing, the chapel has a historic role in the life of GTS, and some of the allegedly unilateral changes in the chapel worship made by the Dean are among the complaints raised. While it is quite true that the seminary is not a monastery, the life-giving heartbeat of the school is the round and rhythm of daily worship and prayer. In fact, it seems there has been far too much knee-jerking, and not enough knee-bending, in the current tumult.

I have no answers other than to appeal for reevaluation of extreme action, and a pullback to a moderate and moderating position in which grievances might be addressed without prejudice or favor.

And in the meantime, the seminary is in my daily thoughts and prayers.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Kurt Huber said...

Thank you for your wise words, as always.

Lionel Deimel said...

Your description “far too much knee-jerking, and not enough knee-bending” is priceless.

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Excellent...no sense re imagining or reimaging humility.