News articles about turmoil at General Theological Seminary had immediate impact on those of us who attended Episcopal seminaries.
But the news “went viral” far beyond that small coterie and for reasons beyond nostalgia.
For one thing, it’s a juicy soap opera. Faculty playing hardball, then finding themselves unemployed. A dean pushing back, then losing credibility as word about him spread. A board looking confused and high-handed. Students wondering if they, too, should go on strike.
But impact goes beyond the particular event itself. For something fundamental seems to be changing.
It’s hard to pinpoint. For one thing, as I wrote last week, the residential three-year seminary seems to be ending its run, a victim of costs and other ways of preparing for ordained ministry.
That would be disconcerting to those clergy who prepared at seminaries like General, but probably not troubling to the majority who are preparing in other ways.
Seminaries’ woes are further sign that mainline Protestant religion is being forced to engage with a world that yearns for faith but cares little for mainline institutions and traditions.
When so much energy has gone into maintaining those institutions, what is left when people, especially young adults, turn away from “church” as we know it, that is, our church facilities, clergy, doctrines and church-centered worship?
The most far-reaching implication is this: We are discovering that the world can get along without us. Few are asking for our authoritative guidance. Our clergy aren’t seen as “thought leaders” or our institutions as worthy of emulation.
We are no longer “one-up” — a source of wisdom, a font of valuable knowledge, a teacher of necessary skills, an alms purse to ameliorate the world’s deprivation. It felt good to be in that position. “Noblesse oblige” satisfied our self-perception as the “noblesse” deigning to care.
Now we are the “least of these.” We are the ones who can’t manage our affairs without ugly conflict. We are the ones who get caught in unethical behavior, whose assemblies are marked by nostalgia, not urgency. We are the ones who don’t know the way forward. We are the ones with problems we can’t solve.
Like the downtrodden peasants in a Russian novel, we know ourselves as decent people, but the powerful ignore us, and our neighbors find us tiresome, evaders of taxes. What happened to the “noblesse” we thought defined us and the special treatment we thought we deserved?
It’s a difficult time. Some disturbing new reality is settling in, and it’s deeper than struggling institutions and financial shortfalls.
We are discovering that we are in the one-down position. We are the needy; we are the uncertain. Our clergy struggle with burnout and self-destructive behaviors. Our lay leaders are angry and distracted by worldly concerns. Our gatherings often feel listless and backward-focused.
Take heart. Being down and out preps us for the Gospel. If we can get outside our old paradigms and embrace the world as it is, we will rejoice that now, finally, God can use us. Now, finally, we have something to give, namely, solidarity in the struggles of life.
Now, finally, we have an offering to the world: not church triumphant, not “noblesse” on parade, but faith in the face of a storm.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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