An Open Letter to the Students of The General Theological Seminary
“Archie Gates: You’re scared, right?
Conrad Vig: Maybe.
Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.
Conrad Vig: That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.
Archie Gates: I know, but that’s the way it works.”
from the movie Three Kings (1999)
Dear Students of The General Theological Seminary,
Over the past couple of weeks I have seen many letters written to you, and about you. Most of those letters express concern for you and are full of pastoral pablum that seem to suggest that you are fragile flowers being tossed between storms. That you have no power to control your experience at General Seminary. This letter is a little different. This is my request to you to walk out of your classes at General Seminary and show our seminary and this church what the future is going to look like. I understand this is a big request and you have no reason to listen to me. I hope and pray, however, that you will finish reading this letter and then decide for yourself the best course of action. I know that you are getting a lot of advice these days so take this for what it’s worth.
I am a General graduate from the class of 2004 and graduated with your dean and president. We entered seminary under a new curriculum that had the faculty and administration in chaos. Then, on our first full day of classes, September 11th 2001 forever changed our seminary education and formation. Within days many of us were on the streets and serving in any way we could. As weeks and months went by we marched and prayed and struggled to find meaning in a world wracked by war and conflict. Many of us challenged the quietude of our churches and the patriotism of our fellow Americans. Each of us was afraid. We wondered if our Bishops would see us on TV or read our quotes. We worried if members of the Commission on Ministry in our dioceses would find out about our activities. Maybe this would be the end of our process, maybe we would get a terrible middler evaluation. What would we say the next time we wrote our Ember Day letter?
In 2003, the summer before our senior year, the Episcopal church took the courageous step of confirming the election of Bishop Gene Robinson. Many of us were in Minneapolis for those historic votes. Seminarians rented vans and travelled to Bishop Robinson’s consecration in New Hampshire. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship Chapter at General Seminary was the first to invite Bishop Robinson to speak and General Seminary and was the first episcopal seminary to host him after his election. All of this was organized by students and many of us came from diocese that voted against his consecration. Each of us had to choose whether or not we were willing to take the consequences for doing what we felt was right. We were afraid, but we acted anyway. I was sponsored from one of the most conservative diocese in our church, The Diocese of Alabama. The Cathedral in Alabama raised a black flag the day the votes for consent for Bishop Gene Robinson were taken. I write this, not to claim that we were good and others were bad, but only to point out that many seminarians have faced difficult challenges. My class, the class of 2004 entered a world and a church very different from the one we had left three years before. You are not alone in walking into the unknown.
Now the church is changing again and each of you must choose who you are going to be in it. You are told over and over throughout your ordination process to “be good” and “keep your head down” and “just tell them what they want to hear.” You are forced to lie over and over again about your fears and your faith. Those who hold canonical authority over you can be fickle. Any wrong move or wrong answer might mean the end of your process. The truth is that throughout this process to ordination you are being formed. Every time you choose the convenience of an easy process over the gospel you become less the priest you might have been. Our church has no more space for “tourist clergy” who keep their head down and just tell people what they want to hear, or who hide in the face of conflict. I hope those who sent you to General expected more of you.
My greatest concern now is not that General Seminary will close. My greatest fear for you, and the church, is that the faculty firings will stand, new professors will come in to teach you, and the administrative/technocrats of the church will win. Seminary education will become less about forming priests, and all about building little robots that are good at changing light bulbs in dying buildings and mechanically reciting a dead liturgy. Those who can continue to fill the coffers, but who know nothing of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, much less how to live it or teach it to others.
The truth is that you can make a difference at our seminary right now. You hold a huge amount of power. Very little actual leadership is being shown from the Dean or the Board of Trustees so it is up to you. Three actions will change your life and the life of the seminary.
- Stop going to classes until this situation is resolved with fairness and justice.
- Return to the pattern of daily worship that was the tradition of General Seminary for close to 200 years. No one can stop you from leading the community in Morning and Evening prayer and there are priests that will line up to celebrate Eucharist. Worship together all day, every single day, until there is a just resolution. Make prayer your protest.
- Call or write to your bishop and tell them what you are doing. At the same time, ask them to call and write to everyone involved and demand a fair and equitable solution.
At this point you hold the future of General Seminary in your hands. You are not children watching parents fight. You are adults, you are powerful, and the time has come for you to use your power, guided by the Holy Spirit, to move the seminary forward. You are probably the only ones who can.
One day the complete history of General Seminary will be written, let this be the way that this story ends. That when conflict at General seminary became intractable and when the Requiem was being written, the students of General Seminary, from all over the Episcopal Church, stood up and demanded that the church be what it claims to be. That the students became the leaders and refused to be ignored or treated as collateral damage. That they showed the seminary and the church that the future will not look like the past. You will have the support of thousands and you will chart a new course for our beloved seminary. Most importantly you will become the priests that you want to be and that the church desperately needs.
I keep all of you in my prayers.
The Rev. Jeremy Lucas GTS ‘04