Remarks On The Eve of Commencement at The General Theological Seminary
Thank you to the President and Dean, Kurt Dunkle, to the faculty, and the Board of Trustees of The General Theological Seminary for awarding me an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree tomorrow at the Seminary’s commencement ceremony, and thank you for all General Seminary has meant through the years to me and to my family.
In 1880 The New York Times made this editorial comment about General Seminary: “What people are looking for today is teaching which reverences precedent, and yet is not the slave of precedent, teaching which understands modern thought, and yet is not dominated by it. If The General Theological Seminary can meet this need by training students to bring religious strength into modern life, it will bring returns that will amply repay a large present outlay in money and staff.”
I found all of that to be true when I first came to teach at General from Minnesota in 1991, first as a visiting professor, then called back again to be a full professor in 1993, and then asked to be associate dean in 1997.
I lived with my family in a wonderful four story house on the Close, which occupied the whole east end of the West Building, which my children were convinced was haunted by Bishop John Henry Hobart. The Seminary’s grounds provided a magical context for our daughters’ experience of New York City, and the Seminary’s commitment to education provided for their support, as did my wife’s Columbia University position, for them to attend the great Brearly School on the Upper East Side. They would depart from Chelsea each morning on a tiny bus for that far away privileged neighborhood. Some school parents from the Upper East Side even feared for the children to come down to play here in the then unfashionable Lower West Side, long before the arrival of the High Line.
And so when it was our turn to host the cocktail party for the kindergarten class parents at our house down here, and the parents were unfamiliar with this neighborhood and nervous about walking into a Seminary, I hired three charming GTS students, Sean Mullen, and Courtney Cowart, and Peter Grandell to welcome the guests and mix the drinks and win their hearts. People walked in afraid and left elated with the charms of Chelsea Square.
It was a joy to teach such students of the 1990’s, many of whom have now become outstanding leaders of our Church—among the bishops Allen Shin of New York and Doug Fisher of Western Massachusetts, and among the rectors just to mention those I have worked closely with: Sean Mullen in Philadelphia and Kevin Moroney teaching here at GTS, and Eric Williams, and Susan Williams, and Gloria Payne-Carter, rectors in my own Diocese of Western New York.
What GTS then and now brings together in a unique way is scholarship, surrounded by daily worship, lived out in an urban community of students and faculty, a community, as Augustine would describe it “that tastes the sweetness of God together” on a daily basis.
This ideal of the sweet community of God was the model of what I sought to translate into the setting of a great research university when I became the Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and it is the model of “sweet community” that I have sought to translate as Bishop into the Diocese of Western New York. My goal as Bishop has been to make a Diocese a “web of grace” that Bishop Hobart, who was so involved in the founding of General, used to describe the sweet community, another way of saying that the diocese can be the beloved community our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, talks about.
But as a Bishop I have learned that we can no longer just go back to the sweet days of the 1990’s or the 1880’s, and just keep making to students yesterday’s promises of permanent full-time employment as clergy, or a constantly rising career path, or regularly increasing income. The model of one parish, one priest, and one building is fading into the rear view mirror.
The word is different, and I believe they key to a hopeful future for leaders of our Church is that seminaries must involve themselves in shaping that different work, in stabilizing ministry in a rapidly changing Church, not just reacting to the new Church world in despair, but inspiring hope for the future. How do we make Hobart’s “web of grace” work today? The seminaries must be the indispensable allies of the People of God in helping us to answer that question.
I went to the Church Pension Group in New York for a meeting last summer, and when I walked in one staff member called out: ”Oh, here comes the bishop who is trying to save the seminaries.” I am proud of that label.
As a Bishop, I do look to our seminaries to be the irreplaceable upholders of quality. The Church is damaged by ill-prepared leaders of any order of ministry, and I will always hold out for true standards of scholarship as the indispensable foundation of seminary formation for lay and ordained leaders.
So I believe that what The New York Times said in 1880 is as true today as it was 137 years ago. That truth is the gift we all received here, and it is the gift we will give these students as they graduate tomorrow: to bring religious strength to modern life. We cannot teach the faith if we do not KNOW the faith. The seminaries’ gift to the Church is that this is where we learn to be unafraid to talk about Jesus, as the alternative to the nightmares of this present moment: to discover the power we have, as part of the Body of Christ, to change the world.
Thanks be to God, and heartfelt thanks to you—GTS.