Our Seminaries Are Crucial For The Future Of Our Church

Remarks On The Eve of Commencement at The General Theological Seminary

Receiving an honorary degree

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.



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Remembering Martin Luther King

These are the remarks that I made at the opening of the service of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo on Wednesday April 4, 2018


I am honored to be here tonight as we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am pleased to welcome everyone to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I am always honored to be on the same platform with Bishop Pridgen.  Bishop Pridgen combines the roles of religious and political leadership in a way that always reminds me of one of the things that inspired me about Dr. King, that the message of our faith requires that we work for justice & equality in all parts of our lives and in whatever spheres we move in.

I am honored to share this service tonight with leaders from many faiths and many parts of the Western New York community.  With people who also bring the messages of their faiths and the imperative to work for justice & equality to all parts of their lives and all the spheres that they move in.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that is has been 50 years since that day in April 1968 when the world was stunned by the violent death of the man who Walter Cronkite called on that day “the apostle of non-violence.” So many of the issues of poverty and discrimination, of justice and equality that were facing us then are still facing us today.

In other ways it is difficult to believe that it has only been 50 years.  The movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. and others set in motion has changed the United States and indeed the whole world for the better in so many ways.


It seems to be the truth of our world, that whenever someone speaks up, whenever someone or some group of people, try to move the world in the direction of justice and equality, in the direction of good, the forces of evil are right there working to keep the world the same.

As some of you know, I grew up in the Mississippi Delta in the 50’s and early 60’s.  I can testify to what Dr. King called “the stinging darts of segregation.”  I observed them as a child.

Reflecting back on those times it is clear to me how deeply segregation deprived every one of us of what our lives could have been.

If only the African Americans in my town had been allowed to fully embrace the opportunities and the life of freedom promised to all Americans.

If only we had had the courage to be a part of the life of the whole community without earning the scorn of our neighbors.

I remember vividly smelling the tear gas in the air when I went to the University of Mississippi for the 8th grade science fair just days after James Meredith had enrolled.

I remember vividly seeing the racist bill boards that lined the roads in our town.

I remember vividly how the KKK showed up at my grandmother’s house when, inspired by Dr. King, she had been hosting dinners at her home for her white neighbors and African American friends and the KKK ordered her to keep her mouth shut.  My grandmother had the strength of character and the protection of her position to defy them.

I remember visiting the Delta at the time of my mother’s death in 2013 and seeing how little had changed from those times.

As many of you know, before I was a Bishop, before I was a priest, I was a professor of Church History.

I focused much of my study on Christian Humanism, the movement that connected the teachings of Christ with the humanities.

One of the readings that reflects Christian Humanism in the modern world is Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

In it he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Let that be our song and motto as we carry Dr. King’s vision into our world today.  There can be no justice as long as injustice and inequality are allowed to thrive in parts of our society.  There can be no justice as long as injustice and inequality are allowed to thrive in parts of our city.

We must claim justice and the equity that underlies it as our goal and aim.

Thank you for coming tonight and thank you for raising your voice for justice.

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From Prayer, through Sorrow, to Action

Moving from Prayer through Sorrow to Action

A Holy Week Message from Bishop Franklin

 Last Saturday I was, with many other Episcopalians clergy and lay, at the Buffalo March for Our Lives in Niagara Square.

Like many of these large demonstrations there were remarks by political leaders and community organizers and signs and chanting.  What made this one different was the leadership and message of young people from all over Western New York, including Anna Engel who is a member of St. Matthias in East Aurora.


What the young people said to the 3000 or so of us gathered in the square echoed what the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been saying.  They have grown up with active shooter drills and frequent mass shootings at schools and movie theaters and concerts and churches.  They want to feel safe at school and if the adults aren’t willing to take action, they will.

A few weeks ago no one would have expect that high school students would be speaking to and inspiring the majority of Americans who are in favor of both sensible gun laws and increased mental health services.

On Sunday I marched at Christ Church in Lockport with the rest of the congregation as we remembered the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  We marched around the church and shouted “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and then, a few minutes later, as we read the Passion, shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

No one, except Jesus, who was a part of the original Palm Sunday march in Jerusalem all those centuries ago thought that the victory that Jesus would bring would come at the cross and at the tomb.  Yet the triumphal entry led to the cross which led to the empty tomb which led all of us to eternal life.

I believe that the prayers that began on February 14, Ash Wednesday, with the death of 17 people in Parkland, Florida have led our nation through sorrow for those lives lost and families and friends in grief to the action that we are seeing all around our country.


I will continue to stand with the young people of our nation in taking action to make our schools and our streets safe places for our children and grandchildren to grow up.  It is our responsibility as adults to make the world a better place for them and, as they have made clear, if we don’t, they will do it themselves.

Whether they knew it or not, three thousand of our friends and neighbors were marching and demonstrating and demanding that our nation embrace the Gospel values of love and reconciliation, of healing and peace. The young speakers’ calls for social justice, to move us from embracing death to embracing life, were the very words that Jesus would have spoken.

Now, as the Easter season is dawning, may Jesus be with us as together we determine what our next ACTION should be.

God bless you as we keep marching in the days ahead.

Bishop Bill Franklin

Diocese of Western New York


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