Saturday, October 04, 2014


Dissenting faculty at the General Theological Seminary

Starr King School for the Ministry in Berzerkley is a marginal, energetic, socially conscious outfit where uproar breaks out now and then, not unlike a Unitarian Universalist congregation or the denomination itself.  General Theological School in Manhattan is a dependable, mainstream, dignified seminary in a resilient, well-mannered, tolerant mainstream denomination, the Episcopalians.  What does it mean when they, too, go into uproar?  Especially when the management (president and board) react as though they were Hong Kong officials, firing 8 out of the 10 professors.  They hardly look like renegades.  Their photos show neat, short-haired ladies and gents, all white.  

The Reverend Kurt Dunkle

Their President Dunkle’s manners sound so seriously lacking, so obsessed with sexual imagery and politically insensitive statements, that I think he needs a good medical checkup.  Something has gone wrong.  Big shot white administrators at the top of their game can become grandiose and overbearing without any help, but their lifestyle often includes enough steaks and martinis to invite constricted blood flow to the brain.  This man needs one of those monitoring bracelets.

The Rev. Ellen Tillotson, clerical member of the board who sides with Dunkle.

Consent to be governed is the subject of this post.  If eight out of ten professors do NOT consent to be governed without dialogue, then the institution is in trouble.  (They had asked for a conference, threatening a walk-out, and the management simply pretended they resigned.)  The institution is already in trouble due to high debt levels (of the school rather than the students) which have just been addressed -- successfully, it seems, though by selling off property.  88 (some say there are 70) students is not a large student body.  Will aspiring clergy consent to be educated there?  Ultimately that will decide the fate of the institution.  If I were guessing, I’d say they’re more likely to side with their professors than with Dunkle, certainly if the accounts of his corporation CEO sort of behavior are true and have been observed by students.

Dunkle should not be stiff-necked about this.  If feminists can bring down the President of Harvard University, which also acts as a UU respected seminary, then conciliation would be the wise strategy.  The reports are not optimistic.  

Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff in front of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown, MT.

Here in Montana a young priest, 27, was assigned to the Lewistown Catholic Church.  Arriving full of zeal and eager to get things off to a nice neat start, he informed two gentlemen of retirement age -- the kind of reliable folks who are often pillars of a congregation -- that their decades-long relationship, protected by a civil contract from Washington State but not consecrated by the church, was evil.  They would have to give up their partnership, which surely must be based on sins of the flesh (flesh of the same shape organ-wise), and would not be able to receive communion or any other benefits of the Church.  They had been key members of the choir, which has now fallen apart.  The congregation as a whole is split down the middle.  Pope Francis must be pounding his head on the wall.

Now a secular example.  (I’m resisting jokes about spelling God backwards.)  When I was an animal control officer, I had many opportunities to consider the trade-offs between the letter of the law and what I considered to be just.  The first was early in my so-called career:  a little wire-haired terrier who had been hit by a car.  I took him to a veterinarian.  The official position was that an animal hurt that badly should be euthanized.  The veterinarian said he would not treat the dog for recovery unless someone guaranteed the bill.  

This dog had tags, a red harness, and a recent clip.  I called the office, found out the address of the owner (a very nice, well-kept house), and went there, but no one was home.  I went back to the vet who was administering first aid but refused to go farther, since the bill could rise into hundreds of dollars.  I appealed to my boss.  He said a rule was a rule, deal with it.  So I personally guaranteed the bill.  I had almost no money to spare but it was the right thing to do.  The veterinarian got to work.  Late in the evening the owners came home, found my note, and were grateful.  They were happy to pay the bill for their beloved dog, who was saved.  It was a compassion-based strategy that broke authority, but also saved it.

A few years later, we did a neighborhood sweep where people had become very lax about managing their pets.  The rule of the day was to cite every dog not obeying the letter of the law, which was to be on a leash or behind a fence.  A man I approached was letting his dog run around loose while he worked on his yard.  The dog could easily and quickly have darted into the street or confronted someone on the sidewalk.  I pointed this out and the man gave me lip.  I cited him.  It went to court.  He was VERY indignant!  

The judge was amused, but dismissed the ticket.  I didn’t care.  It cost him time and emotion.  But it was also clear that I had pushed it far enough.  If I had grabbed the dog, put it in the truck, and cost him a hundred bucks to reclaim it (he had not licensed the dog nor gotten it rabies shots), that would have been too far.  I would not have argued with him as much as I did if there had not been five other officers on the block, all paying close attention.  It was an authority-based action, tempered by strategy.

A quote from a paper in Cerebrum (a group that studies the brain) by Peggy Mason, Ph.D.  “Membership in a social group brings benefits that scale with the ability of the group to work together.  Thus social cohesion, more than simple sociality, most powerfully promotes survival.”   Being a seminarian is not a matter of accepting dogma or authorities, but rather social cohesion that derives from knowing each other, trusting exchanges, and feeling secure in one’s position.  GTS, according to Wikipedia, is a liturgically driven institution with theologically prominent professors.  If Dunkle, who comes late to the ministry, is pressing hard to make them “grow the seminary,” then his motto of “Both/And” becomes a compulsion to work double-time.  One solution for strapped seminaries is to go to "low residence" -- one-step above correspondence schools.  No social cohesion.  The seminary is in a gentrifying nabe, Chelsea, maybe a little more "artistic", gay and free-thinking than some Episcopalians might prefer.

Former seminary building sold and converted to fancy condos there in Chelsea.

The personal dimension of leadership, which is the point of ministerial “formation” or the training of a cop (both authority-based), is always the end point of a system.  It’s sensitivity and resilience is key.  Law enforcement people across the country have so fallen in love with the military model that are having to relearn this.  Evidently seminary presidents must also learn not to fire without justification.  Dunkle must know he is looking at lawsuits since most of his life he was a prominent lawyer.  Already he has made his seminary look unattractive to youngsters who want to be peacemakers.  To say nothing of replacement professors.


I note two things.  The big new initiative that Dunkle was proposing was called the “both/and” which at the U of Chicago Div School was the key credo of a theologian called “Bibfeldt” like those other “Big B” fellows coming out of German.  He was arguing in contrast to Kierkegaard, whose catch phrase was “either/or.”  Without getting into the contrasting dogmas, the main difference between these two prominent scholars was that Bibfeldt was imaginary, invented as a prank by students.  Over time he somehow managed to write papers, enjoy feschtshrifts, be the subject of seminars, and even publish books.  Some of us began to really appreciate his ideas!  Dunkle should have been there.  

The Reverend Wray Mackay

I see that a former professor, the kind of wise old man that seminarians look for and love, died in a climbing accident last April.  I suspect that there is still unaddressed grief at that seminary.  Losing iconic buildings can also trigger grief.  Compassion would be far more effective than compulsion.  Obedience to authority is Old Testament.  The Gospels are about something else.

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