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Friday, June 27, 2014

Too dark and broken a place

I love to tell the story of my first visit to The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

It was "Visiting Days 1981". I don't think they have them anymore. Visiting days, I mean.

I was keenly aware that my bishop was adamantly opposed to my attending EDS.  Indeed, he had voted against the ordination of women and I was the third woman he had allowed to go through the process in the diocese. I would be the fifth and last woman he ordained before he retired.

He wanted me to attend General Theological Seminary, AKA "The Seminary" (a title for which GTS vied with VTS, Virginia Theological Seminary), AKA, "The General" where he (and, at one time, his wife, I seem to remember) was on the Board of Trustees.

He said to me, and I repeat, "You will have enough difficulty having credibility in the church as a woman. You need to make certain that your academic credentials are impeccable."

If that had been true, I would have applied to Harvard.

Anyway . . .. 

There was this minor problem with GTS.  When I called to make reservations for Visiting Days, I asked about housing. Specifically, I asked, were they able to accommodate my family of two women and six children?

I heard a soft but unmistakable gasp at the other end of the line. And then, a muffled cough. And then, the throat cleared and said, "Well, that would present . . . some . . . . difficulty . . . because, you see, we . . . prefer . . . actually . . . it's very, very important . . . very important . . . required, actually, I think . ..  that you live on campus."

"And," I said, "you can not accommodate my family. Is that what you're saying?"

"Well, my dear," said the voice at the other end, "I doubt any seminary could. Not in The Episcopal Church, anyway."

Well, EDS could. And, did. Not without some . . . drama. And, to be sure, there's always some sort of drama going on in seminaries. Somewhere. The geography or year or denomination or spirituality or anything else doesn't matter, really.  There's always drama going on in seminaries.

It's part of the DNA of a group of people called together to discern their vocations in a fish bowl and under the enormous pressure of bishops and Commissions on Ministry.

The drama du jour upon our arrival at EDS had to do with the one available apartment in married student housing over at Kirkland Street in Cambridge that would accommodate us.

Oh, by the way, only three years later, there would be high drama around the selling of that property to Harvard (AKA, "The University that ate Cambridge"), but that's another story for another time which has many of the same overtones of the current conflict.

So, the problem was that the seminary family living there, in that one apartment that would accommodate our family of eight,  included the seminarian husband, the wife and three children, one of them a newborn.

A perfect, wholesome, all-American family right? Well, except the seminarian husband had just come out as a gay man - while his wife was pregnant, I seem to recall - and he had moved out to a single apartment on campus leaving his wife and three children in their old apartment.

Remember: it was the early 1980s. The AIDS pandemic was just beginning, but at the time it was called GRID = Gay Related Infectious Disease.

The students - and some of the faculty - were up in arms about the situation. It wasn't that he was gay, and it wasn't THAT he came out, it was HOW he came out, you see. WHEN he came out, actually. He couldn't have figured this out sooner? Like, maybe, before the third pregnancy? What were his wife and children supposed to do now? 

So, you might begin to see that, when two lesbians and their six children were about to displace the straight woman and her three children who had been "abandoned" by her "newly" gay husband . . . well .. . . it might cause a bit of .... well . . ..  drama.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to that first visiting day, when I decided to go to EDS.

I should mention that, when I arrived, my application seemed to have been misplaced. So, there was no room for me on campus. There was some distress and a wee bit of drama about that but one very well mannered and delightfully gay man took matters into his own hands and set me up in a room for the night at the Sheraton Commander, right around the corner.

The Sheraton Commander. I had never before stayed in a hotel. Only motels. Certainly, nothing that looked quite like The Sheraton Commander.

I was starting to feel waaay out of my league. Especially when I saw the unmistakable frown on the the very polite and delightfully gay man's face when he went to hang up my dress. It was not in a proper garment bag but, rather, covered by a black, heavy duty, leaf bag. It was all I had.

Cambridge practically reeked of the smell of "old money". It was home to "The Established". People with "history". Additionally, there resided some of the best minds in the world who studied or taught at Harvard and Radcliffe and MIT.

And then, of course, there was Boston.

I couldn't imagine how this daughter of "Mill Girls" from Fall River, MA was going to fit in to this place where the sons and daughters of The Established came to learn how to lead others to worship the God of their power and glory.

I sat through a few classes and attended a few interviews with some faculty and students, and was particularly shaken by my interview with the Dean, Harvey Guthrie.

He was impeccably dressed in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, a light pink stripped French-cuffed shirt with gold cufflinks and a red bow tie, and, on his feet - I'll never, ever forget - black penny loafers with a nickle in the slot.

I remember thinking, right then and there, that it must be so that, if one were to be a "real" Episcopal priest, one must dress very well and always, always, always wear black penny loafers on one's feet. With a nickle in the slot.

In fact, Ms. Conroy didn't even have to ask what she should get me as an ordination present. I rarely wear them anymore, but I do still have that same pair of black penny loafers in my closet.

As I said, my interview with Dean Guthrie left me deeply shaken.  I smiled my best smile and practiced my best manners in my best Jonathan Meyers suit (which I had gotten at a thrift shop just for this occasion), but there was something about the man that made me nervous.

It was as though he could see past my best performance self and right through to the real, nervous, anxious, insecure me, who wanted very much to please so she could be "accepted" - in more ways than just into seminary.

I was, after all, a Postulant. I had been accepted in my diocese. But this . . . this was different.

We exchanged pleasantries, the Dean and I, and then he invited me to sit down in a real red leather chair. He looked me straight in the eye and said words that I'll never forget.

"Well," he said, "let's begin. We don't have much time. I'm sure you have difficult questions to ask of me about how this school will prepare you for the realities of ordained ministry. I have difficult questions to ask of you about how your bishop and diocese and congregation and family will support you while you're here."

He smiled kindly and then said, "The world is too dark and broken a place for us to play polite, political games with each other. So, let's begin."

In that moment, I knew that this was the place I needed to be in order to learn and grow and become the priest I knew God was calling me to be.

At the same time, I was scared to death that I wasn't good enough for this place - for The Episcopal Church. It didn't have anything to do with my sexual orientation or the size and shape of my family.

It had everything to do with class status.

That was confirmed for me when I walked into the reception that was being held for visiting students. In the Tyler Reading Room. I mean, imagine having enough class status and enough affluence to have a room - a whole room - dedicated to a place where you could read! Just, read! With the library just across campus! Imagine being the person who had that room named after you.

It was hard for me to imagine.

To make things worse, as I walked into the room, The Tyler Reading Room, I noticed that there were tables tastefully decorated and offering large platters of cheese and crackers and red and white wine.  No paper plates here. Glass and crystal, knives and forks, thank you very much. And, everything impeccably done in green and cream and engraved with the school logo in gold.

The music playing in the background carried the unmistakable sound of a Viennese waltz.

I wanted to crawl out of the room before I had to open my mouth, but someone greeted me and pulled me over to a group of women who were standing along the outer perimeter of the room.  Our introductions were interrupted by the approach of a man - an odd looking little man, to my eyes anyway, wearing a tweed jacket and a red bow tie and sporting a handle bar mustache. He bowed deeply to all the women and said to us, indiscriminately, "May I have this dance?"

Just as I could feel myself break into an anxious sweat, I heard the woman standing next to me say in a rather loud, decidedly Texas drawl, "Well, shoot! If it ain't got a "hee-haw" in the middle of it, I can't dance to it."

We all laughed and the little man went away and, after my conversation with those women, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could, in fact, "fit in". That I could, in fact, learn here - and not just how to "behave" in order to be "acceptable".

This was a place where even the Dean, a man who had just returned from rehab for his alcoholism, understood that the brokenness in the world couldn't - wouldn't - be healed with perfection, but rather by the brokenness of those who knew their own brokenness perfectly well.

The world is too dark and broken a place for us to play polite, political games with each other.

Turns out, so is the church. So is the seminary.  All seminaries. But, these days, especially my beloved seminary of The Episcopal Divinity School.

Apparently, it's been going on for some time, but the conflict has, unfortunately, begun to boil over into the wider Episcopal and church community. 

If you've somehow missed it, you can find lots of pieces to fill in the blanks at Episcopal Cafe. There's also a commentary by Tom Ehrich and a report in The Living Church.

Bottom line: As we head into the 2014-15 Academic Year at EDS, there is no Admissions Officer (and the turnover in that position has been enormously high), no professor of Church History, and no Dean of Students - who recently resigned amidst much distress by faculty and students alike.

Another source of information also includes a closed FB group called, "EDS Students, Friends and Family" which is a painful read, most days.  It is rare to read a positive word there.

For most of the people who post there, the motto seems to be "Anyone who doesn't agree with us 110% must be against us."

There is no suggesting - not even hinting - that there might be another perspective to the story.

And, forget the words "reconciliation" or "resolution". The only words that seem to be approved for use are "bullied," "oppression," and "violence." 

When I have tried to ask questions that assume joint responsibility for the present crisis, it was suggested by two women that, perhaps I was looking to be named Interim Dean of Students. Another student said that, in his experience, those who sought 'reconciliation' were 'conflict avoidant'. Another informed me, flat out, that I was clearly not "one of the little ones of Jesus."

As Tom Ehrich said, "You can tell this isn't going to end well."

My take? And, it's just my take. I'm not professing to have an answer, much less THE answer. It's just my take and it's this: This is, essentially, a conflict of cultures.

The cultural conflicts I experienced 30 years ago at EDS still exist, just in a different form.

EDS has become a richly diverse community - ethnically, racially, and religiously. It is one of the approved seminaries for the MCC, Metropolitan Community Church.  It is also geographically diverse - especially now with the advent of "Distance Learning" students, who are only physically on campus for a week, twice a year.

The faculty are also very diverse - in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. I must say that I am very, very proud of my seminary for making a commitment to live out of and into the diversity and full inclusion of all of God's people at every level of seminary life.

That diversity, however, does not come without tensions and challenges. 

In order to live within the tensions of this the students and faculty, to their credit, eat, sleep, eat, drink and live out the VISIONS/FOUNDATIONS program.  You can follow the link and read more about it, but it is an excellent program - not without its own limitations, of course - which addresses the differences in various cultures, in part, by creating a culture and language of its own.

Part of that language includes "transparency", "shared governance" and "power analysis".

Here's the problem - well at least, as I see it: Near as I can figure the President and Dean and Board of Trustees are not similarly immersed in the VISIONS/FOUNDATIONS program. If you read the letter from the President of the Board of Trustees, you'll see that he speaks the language of "Best Practices" from the Association of Theological Schools.

Part of that language includes words like "authority," "decisions" and "finances".

Is it any wonder, then, that these groups keep talking past each other?

When you add the clear power imbalance between the administration and the faculty, you can begin to see why the issue of tenure is so explosive.  Add to that the power imbalance between administration and students and you see why the issue of the change in status for the housing of Distance Learners added fuel to an already raging fire.

Anyway, that's my take and, bottom line, I don't suppose it really matters what I think to most of the people "on the ground". Indeed, I don't think, in the final analysis, my "take" is going to make a difference in terms of the final outcome.

I think Tom Ehrich's latest post, SUGGESTIONS ON SEMINARY CONFLICT offers a way forward to both sides who seem entrenched in the need to be "right" and the need to be angry.
"Some of these steps might already be under way. But I would suggest the board of trustees assert their authority, bring in a trained corporate mediator (not a fellow or former seminary dean), agree on terms of a mediation, name them as binding, and then follow through with accountability. I would give it two months, then bring the conflict to a close. Anyone who can't accept the mediator's plan should be invited to leave, including tenured faculty and administrators."
It's a strong, clear forceful leadership strategy. I have no doubt that aspects of it will not be pleasing to any side of the several sides of this conflict. Handing over power to a trained corporate mediator and agreeing to binding arbitration is unheard of in church circles.

Maybe that's part of the problem. We in the church who think we have the corner on the market of 'reconciliation' are really the worst when it comes to the practical applications of that wonderful, life giving concept.

One thing is certain - We seem to be going nowhere fast by just allowing everyone to spin their wheels in the mud of conflict.

It might mean the end of the EDS, but if something doesn't happen soon to find some resolution and reconciliation, I fear the school will simply implode.

I fear the seminary which was once such a bright beacon of justice and hope to me and so many others over the years has, itself, become too dark and broken a place for us to play polite. political games with each other.

The brokenness of the world - or the church or the seminary that educates and trains the ordained leaders of the church - will never be healed by perfection, but rather by the brokenness of those who know their own brokenness perfectly well.

We don't have much time.  There are difficult questions we need to ask one another so we can make difficult decisions.

So, let's begin. 


Jackie said...

It seems more than a little unfair to mention a closed group and cast upon it such a pall of negativity. Yes, people are hurting, but there have been some very positive conversations where differing views have been brought to light with great trust, disagreements worked through, and creative--if somewhat blue-sky--brainstorming born. I strongly feel that because it is a closed group it should not have been brought into the conversation, especially when the assessment of the conversations there is so negative and to offering balancing specifics would be to breach trust.

Daniel Weir said...

Thank you for this. As a former trustee I will not take sides in this - even during my last year on the board I didn't know enough to know what was the cause of the conflicts. I have one loyalty in this - not to the board nor to the president nor to the faculty - to our school.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jackie - Anyone who thinks a closed group on the internet is really a closed group is not understanding the reality of the internet. Snapshots can be - and probably have been - taken and, no doubt, circulated privately. I've checked the membership list - some of the folks who are members have no direct connection to EDS. They are "friends of friends" of people who went to EDS. I don't know who has the "authority" to allow folks in. Maybe that's what happens when there's "shared authority".

Furthermore, I did not, in any way shape or form, reveal the identities of those who so viciously and violently attacked me for having the audacity and temerity to ask questions that did not assume all "shame and blame" (in a system that is supposed to be free of shame and blame) on the P&D and BoT.

Fair? Unfair? Those are not operative words in that place. Cast it in a pall of negativity? The only positive comments come when an article is posted that casts the P&D and BoT in a negative light.

Besides, that's one very small part of my whole blog. It's what? Three paragraphs? I think I make several other important observations about the mess there. Your note is so typical of what I read over at that group - you only lift up and comment on what is perceived to be negative to you. Someone commented on Ehrich's suggestion and said something like, "sounds good but no way can it be done in two months." All I could do was throw up my hands and laugh. (So I wouldn't cry)

Which leads me to say that there's lot and lots of pain to go around. I'm pretty clear that much of what I read over there has its genesis in pain. And embarrassment. And anger. I also find it ironic that the one group that complains about lack of "transparency" will only talk in a "closed group".

You and I have disagreed before, Jackie. This is another one of those times. There will be more, I have no doubt.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Daniel - I don't think my blog asks anyone to take a side. I'm not taking a side - except to defend myself against the violence I experienced by some "friends" of EDS. Sounds like there's plenty of blame - and pain - to go around.

I'm with you. My deepest loyalty is to EDS. I'm angry and embarrassed by what's happening there.

It has to stop.

Anonymous said...

A month ago you wrote that "The Church must die so that Christianity will thrive." I'm not familiar with EDS other than what you and other commentators have written, but it appears to be the apotheosis of contemporary TEC: progressive, race conscious, having an upper class history while contemporary students come from a mixture of backgrounds, sensitive to perceived power imbalances, has to tap into its endowment in order to maintain current services, resistant to change in fact even while it mouths revolutionary rhetoric, etc. In another words, if any particular TEC institution has to die by your theory, then it seems as if EDS would be a perfect candidate. That's why I'm a bit confused that you express regret over its current travails. With a $33M endowment, it still has sufficient cushion to survive a transition. If EDS can't successfully change, what else in the TEC universe can?


JCF said...

Prayers ascending!

I chose to have an ecumenical education (to study ecumenism, go figure), at UTS (in the City of New York). But I always admired ETS, from afar. May God grant reconciliation, in God's Time...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael- Well, my goodness. For once you ask a reasonable question. I'm grateful for that. And so, I shall answer it.

My answer is this: If EDS - yes, even my beloved EDS with whom I've had a love affair for over 30 years - can't pull it together and get out of its own way and continue to do and teach the Gospel, then yes - it pains me to say it but - it should shut its doors because it will be operating out of self-interest which does not prosper the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it has done for all these many years.

Here's the thing: I don't care anymore who started it. I don't care who lied to whom. I don't care whose behavior is unprofessional or inappropriate. None of that matters any more. I just want it to stop and I want the work to go on.

The only way I see that happening is to have an outside arbitrator come in as per Ehrich's suggestion.

That is a sad, sad commentary on the state of the church but, truth is, we talk and preach repentance and reconciliation and renewal in the church but we are lousy at doing it. If we were good at it, you and I wouldn't be at opposite ends of the spectrum. We'd have been able to find a middle ground.

So, call in the arbitrator. We are losing valuable time and energy. The world needs Jesus. Let's get on with it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, JCF. I think EDS has been moving into an Episcopal non-denominational seminary for a while. I suspect that's part of the problem. It's not just one person's fault. Everyone has played a part as we move through the tension of transition and change.

Anonymous said...

OK, fair enough. Thanks for the answer. While I can't agree that institutional religion is an optional part of Christianity, I do understand well how religious institutions can get in the way-- or simply outlive their time-- in the promotion of the Reign of God.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael - We can agree to disagree on the necessity of the institutional church but I'm delighted that we can agree on the proliferation of the Gospel. Granted, we understand the Gospel very differently, but as long as we both seek and find Jesus and seek to be faithful to the Gospel, each in our own way, I do believe God is well pleased.

Unknown said...

Mainline Protestantism has been running out of places for full-time clergy for over 20 years; why do you need so many seminaries to begin with? How many graduates of any Mainline seminary can expect to find a full-time job within 3 years of graduation/ordination? With the debt they take on to attend these places, even a seminary that had faculty and administration in full accord on everything would be hard pressed to feel secure and optimistic about their futures.
Either find some other reason to keep these schools open or close them and use the money for something more useful. There are other seminaries/schools to do what this place does.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, George. That's a hard truth you are proclaiming.