Those outside of The Episcopal Church may not be much aware of this, but within the Episcopal community this week has been a lot of talk about General Seminary in New York, the oldest of our denominational seminaries and the only one owned by the General Convention, the governing body of Episcopalians. The faculty has become embroiled in a dispute with the Dean and Board of Trustees, with the upshot being that eight of the ten full time faculty have been fired — or, in the more careful language of the seminary administration, their resignations were accepted (though, the faculty claims, they were never offered).
It’s not my intention to rehearse all of this (there are plenty of stories online about it, and even The New York Times has published on it), nor am I really in a position to know what is happening (although the values we claim to uphold as Christians and Episcopalians don’t seem much in evidence in all of this). It’s all quite disturbing at a number of different levels, and probably also serves as a sign of the stress and distress characterizing seminary life these days (driven by dropping enrollments and pressing financial realities — and the fact that The Episcopal Church has more seminaries than it needs). What has perhaps disturbed me the most about all of this, however, is a report that came out from a meeting that was held between the chair of the Board of Trustees (a retired bishop) and the student body. In that report, students apparently asked the bishop to have the Dean of the seminary leave the room for some of the conversation because his presence felt intimidating and unsafe. The bishop was not inclined to do so, and reportedly said in response, “in parishes you serve, there is no safe speaking.”
If this report is accurate, and the bishop actually said those words, I find what they seem to imply deeply troubling. On its face, the bishop’s comments would seem to imply that within Episcopal parish communities, it is not possible to speak safely — at least, it is not possible for those in leadership to speak safely. It makes me wonder what this bishop’s experience of church life has been that would cause him to reach the conclusion that the “default mode” of parish life is a lack of safety. And, if that is indeed the case, then why should anyone wish to seek ordination and assume leadership of such communities if they can expect to spend the entirety of their ministries in unsafe environments?
The words “church” and “unsafe” should never peacefully coexist. The last few years have revealed lots of stories in the press about the horrors of unsafe churches, particularly for children. Most recently, a well-known non-denominational megachurch in Seattle has faced multiple allegations that it is an unsafe place. Episcopalians, I think, like to pretend that problems of unsafe churches are elsewhere, and not within our own communities, but that is indeed pretending. We may not have been beset by the kind of crisis that has gripped the Roman Catholic Church, but there are children, women, and men in The Episcopal Church who have become victims of a lack of safety in some of our communities. The stories that emerge from unsafe faith communities are terrible, but they should never be accepted as normative.
For the bishop to suggest that our communities are normatively unsafe is doubly troubling to those connected to General Seminary, I should think, given that the faculty who have been dismissed have alleged that they felt unsafe within the seminary, due to actions they allege on the part of the Dean. While I think he did not intend to convey this, the bishop’s comments could be construed as suggesting that because churches cannot be relied upon to be safe places, no one should expect the seminary to be a safe place, either.
All of this is entirely unacceptable. We should expect our congregations and our seminaries to be safe places, and if we discover they are not, we should do all that can be done to make them safe. After all, faith communities are supposed to be about providing places to do serious work of the soul, and that kind of work requires a certain level of vulnerability and trust. A congregation (or a seminary) that cannot be a safe place cannot, therefore, fulfill its mission.
I am thankful that, for the most part, I have not shared the experience that the bishop seems to have had. I have, with rare exceptions, experienced the communities I have served as safe places. There have been moments, however, when circumstances or conflicts have created what for me were temporary moments when I didn’t feel safe, and I suspect others didn’t, as well, and these were terrible, troubling moments. I could not live and work in a community in which that was always the case, and neither could anyone else who had even a modicum of mental and spiritual health.
“Unsafe” should never be the church’s default mode, whether we are talking about speech or any other aspect of church life. And the moment we find out that safety is lacking, we need to recognize that our very reason for being is imperiled, and everything must be done to repair the damage and make the community safe once again.