Well, that’s all right then

Apparently, the GTS faculty will return to work.

We accept your offer of reinstatement to our positions, and the salaries and benefits outlined in our contracts in effect prior to September 25, 2014. We look forward to being able to do this as soon as possible. Like any member of the Seminary’s faculty we agree to abide by the terms of the Seminary Constitution, Bylaws and policies. Given some of the confusion that has arisen about these texts in recent weeks, we will need you to provide us with copies of them: this would help us as we seek together to work within them. We are pleased to see that during the “cooling off period” all of the parties’ respective legal arguments and positions will be reserved.

A letter from the Rt. Rev’d Clifford Daniel 3d, a member of the Board of Trustees, may shed additional light

. I am hopeful that the Executive Committee and Board’s invitation to the Faculty to a return to the prior status through the remainder of this academic year will be received in a positive way and that the faculty assume their prior positions. I am encouraged by the decision of the Executive Committee to engage a skilled, qualified Christian mediator who will call the Dean, the Board, the Faculty, Students (and perhaps representatives of the Alumni/ae Association) together to engage in a prayerful, structured and disciplined process of mediation and reconciliation. Following graduation in May 2015, we as a community can come together to determine where we are and where we need to go. Part of the process must be mutual conversation, confession and repentance as necessary steps toward reconciliation.

The Shame of Being Episcopalian

On Friday evening, I received an email blast from Interfaith Worker Justice. It’s an email list I’d been on since 2011 and the protests at the State Capitol in Madison. Back then, I offered Grace’s hospitality to people of faith and somehow, my name was added to Interfaith Worker Justice email list. I’d always meant to unsubscribe because as important as the issues they raise are, my energy, time, and passion are focused in other directions.

On Friday, however, the issue wasn’t the minimum wage but the events at General Theological School that began with the firing of 8 faculty, a decision that was affirmed at the Board of Trustees meeting this past week. As I read the email I felt the shame rising in myself to know that once again the leadership of the Episcopal Church seemed to be acting immorally, unpastorally, and in ways antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ. In spite of my shame and embarrassment, I recognized the irony of the appeal to the Presiding Bishop in the petition that the email highlighted. The PB had been on campus in the days after the initial firing of the faculty (taught one of the classes as a “replacement) and is an ex officio board member.

Others, most notably Crusty Old Dean and AKM Adam have laid out the labor issues at stake and the offense that that the Board of Trustees is acting in ways that General Convention has denounced (or would denounce) if it were occurring in corporate America or perhaps in foreign lands. As a former academic myself, and as a former short-term faculty member of an Episcopal seminary, I was always uncomfortable with the effort to view relations between faculties and administrations in light of labor law. I always thought (and still do) that the labor model distorts what ought to be happening in colleges, universities, and seminaries, especially when those institutions claim to be church-related. I know the necessity of it, but I think it diminishes the mission, purpose, and quality of relationships all around.

In fact, what bothers me most about the situation at GTS is not so much the labor issues at stake. It is not even the claim made by many that the actions of the Board of Trustees go against church canons and the gospel (although they seem to). What bothers me most is that this seems to me to be an extension of a trend we have been witnessing for the last decade in the Episcopal Church–the insistence by the leadership to seek recourse to legal remedy, to defend prerogatives and property against every claim, to pursue a scorched-earth policy in protection of the institution, and to offer reconciliation after the trials are over (but while the wounds are still raw).

What’s happening at GTS is not unlike what has happened to bishops (remember the PB declaring that the Bishop of South Carolina had abandoned communion?), to dioceses, and now to a seminary. A petition that appeals the Presiding Bishop to take action?

It’s doubly ironic that all this is occurring as we’re still digesting the recent report from the Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church with its recommendations for a stronger “CEO” as Presiding Bishop, a smaller Executive Council, and contract workers as church-wide staff. We are eyewitnesses to the restructuring of General Theological Seminary with its evisceration of faculty governance and lasting damage to a community of formation. I have advocated strongly for the need to reform the structures of the church, but if what emerges is less shared governance and more centralized power, count me among the resistance.

What I fear most is that over the last decade we have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

Bishop Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York (and a member of the GTS Board of Trustees) has issued this statement:

it is my hope that we may yet find a way to work within the structure provided by this resolution to continue to press forward toward that which we still believe must be done, and that is to reinstate the eight faculty in full, and to do that this week.

Bishop Breidenthal (Diocese of Southern Ohio) has also spoken publicly in defense of the fired GTS faculty.

Whose image do you bear? A Sermon for Proper 24, Year A

There are few aspects of our culture that are more contested than the relationship between religion and the state. Whether it be questions concerning the meaning and limits of religious freedom, as we saw recently in the controversy over the contraception mandate or the city of Houston’s over-reaching subpoenas of pastors’ sermons, or whether governmental meetings can begin with prayer, it seems that almost every week, there’s a new battleground over the free exercise of religion. That’s the case even though a recent poll suggested that most Americans would like more religion in politics, not less. Continue reading

Requiem for a seminary? Requiem for a church

Once again, Crusty Old Dean tells the hard truth:

Requiem for a seminary? Requiem for a church which calls white black and black white, and calls things resignations which are not resignations. Shall we be a church where petty oligarchies can run roughshod, whether in seminaries, or dioceses, or parishes, divorced from their constituencies?

What if my sermons got subpoenaed? Reflections on Religious Liberty in post-Christian America

When I first came across the story from Houston about lawyers for the city subpoenaing communications from clergy in connection with the ongoing conflict over Houston’s equal-rights ordinance, I was amazed. A facebook friend who is of a more conservative bent posted it on his timeline. I had come to expect such outrageous stories from him that didn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. So I succumbed to the click-temptation, read about it, and still wondered.

On the one hand, I suspected that all of the subpoenaed pastors provided public versions of their sermons (either text, or more likely, video), so lawyers ought not need subpoenas to read them. On the other hand, I immediately wondered what might happen if this practice became widespread. I could readily imagine mayors using subpoenas to suppress the prophetic voices of clergy speaking out on racism, police brutality, or presidential administrations using similar tactics against clergy who speak out against their military adventures overseas.

What has surprised me is the response from the mainstream (progressive?) press. Media Matters for America (a progressive media watchdog) assures us: “No, The City Of Houston Isn’t Bullying Anti-Gay Pastors – This Is Basic Lawyering.” Eugene Volokh takes a somewhat more nuanced approach at the Washington Post. He provides some hypothetical situations when a subpoena might be appropriate and legal, but argues that this effort is far too broad.

On one level, this dispute seems to me another example of the contested territory of religion in contemporary America. When is a pastor or an imam, or a rabbi, or whoever, communicating religious convictions or engaging in political advocacy? And when might she be doing both at the same time? Is it wrong for a pastor to express his opposition to a city ordinance from the pulpit and to urge his congregation to oppose it?

We may find the pastors’ arguments, political opinions, and theology wrong, even repugnant, but do they have the right to hold those opinions and to share them with their flocks? And who has the right to be the arbiter of such questions? Local governments? An attorney general? The Supreme Court?

One of my discomforts with the Hobby Lobby case was precisely that issue. Supporters of the contraception mandate were critical of the position taken by the owners of Hobby Lobby arguing in essence that their arguments about religious conscience weren’t valid. But who is to judge whether a position is religiously valid? As Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “I have no desires to make windows into men’s souls.”

I’m also uncomfortable with efforts to force small businesses to, for example, make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. Aside from wondering why such couples would want their cakes made by people opposed to their marriages, I think it really does impinge on religious freedom, just as in an earlier age, the US court-martialed those who refused in conscience to serve in the military. Does the state have the right and power to force a photographer to take pictures at a same sex wedding if his religious beliefs oppose such rites?

I suspect that the initial subpoenas were a fantastic and misguided over-reach. I suspect also that the mayor and her attorneys were playing to their base, just as the pastors play to theirs. Whatever the case, this is so hamfisted an attempt that it will likely end in utter failure and probably contribute to the ultimate revocation of the ordinance in question.

Still, it should put a chill down the spine of every religious leader.  Undoubtedly there will come other cases that have universal popular appeal and more skillful lawyers and politicians who will find a way of limiting the speech of clergy, if not conservative Christian pastors, then progressive ones, or more likely, Muslims.

Fortunately, the backlash is coming not just from conservative demagogues. It is also coming from Houston clergy who are supporters of the ordinance at issue. Chris Seay of the Ecclesia community in Houston has written an eloquent open letter to the mayor:

I see you as a friend, so I choose to speak to you in the context of friendship. You lead the city that I love, and I want my church, Ecclesia, to continue working alongside you to make our city better. I’m a native Houstonian and a self proclaimed Houston Geek. I love our diversity, food, sports teams, history, entrepreneurial spirit, and most of all I love the people. I know we agree that all Houstonians are made equal in God’s eyes.

Despite our common aim to better this city, your administration’s actions over the last 30 days confirm that we are now formally at odds. It doesn’t have to be this way, but your decision to subpoena the sermons and communications coming from Christian churches in our city requires a clear and unequivocal response. These actions impede on the historic religious freedoms of America’s churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, while equally being a breach of the relationship we share as citizens of this city. These efforts will only create further division and mistrust, bringing harm to the greater good of Houston.

Oh, and it seems the mayor’s actions have resulted in a miracle: unity among Texas Baptists

On love and dignity and dying

In the end, we couldn’t take away Tony’s suffering, or my dad’s. The sadness
and grief still weigh heavily on me and my mom. I’m not sure I can say that Tony’s suffering and death were beautiful. In fact, it was messy sometimes. Yes, there was pain; it was painful for him even though we did our best to manage it, and it was painful for us who loved him.

But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.

No, dignity isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face.

By Jason Welle, SJ

Teresa of Avila, 1582

Today is the commemoration of St. Teresa of Avila, who died on October 4, 1582. I share one of her poems:

In the Hands of God

I am Yours and born for you,
What do You want of me?

Majestic Sovereign,
Unending wisdom,
Kindness pleasing to my soul;
God sublime, one Being Good,
Behold this one so vile.
Singing of her love to you:
What do You want of me?

Yours, you made me,
Yours, you saved me,
Yours, you endured me,
Yours, you called me,
Yours, you awaited me,
Yours, I did not stray.
What do You want of me?

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse—Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do You want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do You want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness,
An abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace.
What do You want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abndance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will;
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me;
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for you I was born:
What do You want of me?

(translated by Adrian J. Cooney, OCD, from The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila, Volume Three, 1985)