October 1, 2014 (Updated October 2, 2014)| Progressive, mainline Christians barely had the opportunity to finish gloating about the public rebuke of evangelical shock preacher, Mark Driscoll by former members of the Mars Hill megachurch empire over which, until recently, he presided when a new sea of troubles began roiling on their own shores. On Friday, The Anglican Ink shared a press release from eight faculty members at General Theological Seminary that announced their decision not to “teach, attend meetings, or participate in common worship until pressing issues at the Seminary are addressed.” While the initial release was circumspect about the faculty members’ specific complaints, the “pressing issues” were laid at the feet of GTS president and dean, the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle.
By Monday, the GTS board had voted to “accept the resignations” of the faculty members. This heavy-handed action prompted more detailed responses from the striking faculty members while at GTS a pastoral letter to students from Dunkle counseled prayer.
The faculty’s more detailed complaints against Dunkle are shocking, to say the least. He is said to have told a female faculty member he “loved vaginas” then blamed her for being offended. Dunkle is reported to have refered to “slanty-eyed Asians” in San Francisco and to have extolled the “interesting things” black people can do with their hair. Further, faculty complain about a comment I myself heard from Dunkle when seated next to him at a dinner during a lecture series last November, that “General Seminary should not be ‘the gay seminary.’” Overall, the President and Dean is said by the striking faculty to have created an environment of profound disrespect for the diversity that characterizes both the seminary and the Episcopal church and to have led with an air of imperiousness and intimidation that made teaching and forming lay and ordained ministers impossible.
If things are as the striking faculty claim, then they are to be lauded for taking a stand that draws attention to the leadership failings at GTS and presses for change. I myself resigned from a seminary position because of what I saw as ineffective (though not abusive) leadership, and I recently stepped away from an important project because of what I experienced as more of the same with a side of bullying. I have to think that both situations would have been different, though I expect not less painful, had there been eight of me. The body of GTS faculty that has spoken and acted against what they have described as a profoundly dysfunctional educational and spiritual environment is not only a powerful gesture of moral solidarity but also a marker of what many people experience in places of employment, education, or worship and yet feel unable to address alone. Which is to say: Maybe we are all the GTS 8. Or at least too many of us are.
At the end of the day, then, while the mess at GTS is tragic in its particulars, as Sarah Puliam Bailey has noted, it is arguably more significant in what it portends generally. Bailey points to“broader debate over the future direction of seminaries.” But the issues at the root of the GTS crisis, like those at Mars Hill, run much deeper than the fate of one particular category of institution. Driscoll’s Mars Hill and Dunkle’s GTS alike highlight the rigidity of institutional hierarchies, the abandon with which various forms of patriarchal privilege continue to be enacted, and opaque decision making and abusive leadership practices that have long been morally problematic, spiritually debilitating, and functionally ineffective. If challenges to these structures in religious institutions at opposite ends of the spectrum don’t point to the end of the Church, they certainly suggest a principled rejection of traditional modes of religious authority and leadership and a rebuke of abuses of the same that may ultimately change the Church as we know it. (Or at least one can hope as much.)
The seminary system is clearly broken, and the GTS situation represents just one pressure point that’s burst. How long will it be, for instance, before students rise up to demand theological education that more fully engages the complex ministry needs of the Church and the world today in the light of ethical and theological reflection? Or, we might wonder when the legions of vulnerable, under-compensated adjuncts, who keep all of postsecondary education afloat, will exercise the power of their numbers and, in the context of religious education especially, demand consistency between expressed moral values and institutional practice. The strategies of disrespect and intimidation that seem to have been central to the character of leadership at GTS may have been exaggerated by the current President and Dean, but they are hardly unique to GTS or to seminaries in general. They permeate the whole of academic culture.
For all its high minded principles, academe is very often a culture of intimidation, incivility, and outright bullying enabled by both the tenure caste system and the administrative class system. Perhaps when more of those with the most privilege within the tenured caste say “enough,” a more thoroughgoing assessment of the often toxically unjust culture and structures of academe will begin. This would surely include the practices of governance and leadership that are exploding in controversies at GTS and its sister seminary, Episcopal Divinity School, but that’s hardly the whole of the problem.
Far apart as Mars Hill and GTS are in institutional, ideological, and geographical terms, the leadership crises in both settings are remarkably similar. The tyrants and bullies who poison churches tap into the same traditions of privilege and authority that make seminaries and other academic institutions (which, we must remember, all have their roots in medieval cathedral schools) as ethically fraught as they often are.
Both cases—one in the genteel, nearly 200-year-old seminary of what was at least once-upon-a-time the de facto state church in America; the other in an upstart nondenominational-industrial-complex with an enfant terrible hierophant in the pulpit—point to a deeper rumbling at the core of the Church itself. It is a rumbling of the sort hardly unfamiliar to readers of the Christian gospels. If Jesus had it right, the walls of our various temples will all eventually come down—GTS and Mars Hill alike. The question seems to be one of timing. Are these cases small, unrelated incidents in a slow, progressive change? Or do they mark a more rapid and dramatic end of the Church as we know it?
“During periods of great instability like our own, incremental change cannot continue forever,” argues Mark C. Taylor in After God. “As worldwide webs expand, competing visions clash and create noise that amplifies until the networks in which schemata are formed reach … a condition of ‘self-organized criticality’ or, in a more popular idiom, the tipping point.”
Taylor goes on to cite physicist Per Bak in describing how things play out at the tipping point:
Complex behavior in nature reflects the tendency of large systems with many components to evolve into a poised ‘critical’ state, way out of balance, where minor disturbances may lead to events called avalanches, of all sizes. Most of the changes take place through catastrophic events rather than by following a smooth gradual path. The evolution of this very delicate state occurs without design from any outside agent. The state is established solely because of the dynamical interactions among individual elements of the system: the critical state is self-organized.
Here’s the thing about avalanches (as well as landscape and ecosystem changing wildfires): they often happen spontaneously, triggered by random events and unfolding largely outside of human control. But in places where avalanches and fires are known to be likely, they can also be deliberately provoked so that the havoc they wreak is more manageable, less devastating. It’s hardly incremental, but the “critical state” need not be catastrophic even though it will surely produce dramatic change. The challenge, then, is how to prepare for this change, how best to participate even in its seemingly sudden unfolding, and how to respond in the aftermath.
The GTS 8, GTS leadership, Mark Driscoll, and Mars Hill have, each in their own ways, taken us to meaningful tipping points in religious leadership, education, and practice. Whether you’re willing to trigger the avalanche is, I suppose, a matter of whether you stand on the mountain or in the valley below. Mars Hill’s Driscoll, like the GTS’s Dunkle, seems to have taken refuge in a cave somewhere. The GTS 8 look to be pointing at least to higher ground. I think I’ll head that a-way. I’m hoping there’s a new church there.
“Sex, Lies & Seminaries. But Mostly Lies,” The Narthex (October 6, 2014).
“Seminary Faculty Walk Out After Accusing Dean of Racism, Sexism, Saying He ‘Loved Vaginas,” Village Voice (October 2, 2014).
“Episcopalians battle behind walls of NYC seminary,” Associated Press (October 2, 2104).
“Resignations or Terminations?,” Inside Higher Ed (October 2, 2014).
“Seeking Dean’s Firing, Seminary Professors End Up Jobless,” New York Times (October 1, 2014).
“Who the heck do those Episcopal professors think they are?,” Religion News Service (October 1, 2014).
Cover photo credit: Smilla4, “Holyrood Abbey,” 2012. CC 2.0 license.