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Episcopal Divinity School folds into ultraliberal ecumenical seminary

Episcopal Divinity School folds into ultraliberal ecumenical seminary
GTS may not be not liberal enough for EDS students

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
March 8, 2017

It's a done deal. On Feb. 24, Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), a dying ultraliberal Episcopal seminary based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced that it is formalizing ties with Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The question must be raised: Why would Episcopal Divinity School unite with a liberal, nondenominational seminary, with ancient Presbyterian roots, rather than connect with General Theological Seminary, also in New York and located a mere six miles away from Union?

The answer may not be easy to find since both EDS and Union decline to answer VOL's questions either on or off the record. Episcopal Divinity referred VOL to a joint Feb. 24 news release entitled: Episcopal Divinity School Votes to Pursue Affiliation with Union Theological Seminary in New York.

In part, the joint new release said: "The Board of Trustees of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) today (Feb. 24) voted to pursue an affiliation with Union Theological Seminary that would create an EDS entity to provide Episcopal theological education and other programs at Union's campus in New York. The Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary has voted enthusiastically to support Union's leadership in bringing negotiations with EDS to a successful conclusion. The two seminaries will begin negotiations immediately in the hope that both boards can vote on an agreement when they meet in May, before EDS's final commencement at its Cambridge campus."

After pointing VOL to the news release, Rebecca Wilson, a founding partner in Canticle Communications, which is handling the media for EDS, simply e-mailed: "Unfortunately, we won't be able to offer comment beyond the press release."

Canticle Communications is a media firm dedicated to assisting liberal faith communities and organizations to get their messages out. According to the communication group's website, many of Canticle's clients are Episcopalian-based, including: Episcopal Divinity School; Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (Cleveland, Ohio); Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Berkeley, California); the Episcopal Diocese of Washington's Bishop's Appeal; The Chicago Consultation; and Episcopal Cafe. Some of the issues Canticle tackles are: same-sex marriage, anti-gay bias, alcoholism in The Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church finances, reproductive issues, transgendered rights, gun control, LGBT matters and diocesan same-sex blessings.

Ms. Wilson is partnered with a very familiar Episcopalian -- Jim Naughton. As a veteran journalist and freelance writer, Naughton is formerly the canon for communications and advancement for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and he is the founder of Episcopal Cafe, a popular liberal news blog.

Handling media relations for Union Theological Seminary is Gary Zarr, founder of Gary Zarr & Associates (GZ&A), a New York City-based strategic communications and marketing agency dedicated to public relations, event promotion, and marketing communications. According to the agency's website, in addition to Union, some of GZ&A's clientele list includes: Bank of America, the NBA, Duke University, the United Nations, YWCA, the University of Massachusetts, the City of New York's Parks and Recreation Department, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Gardens.

VOL asked if the planned "EDS entity" at Union was going to develop into an Anglican track to provide a certificate or diploma in Anglican Studies. The heart of Zarr's reply was: "The details of the relationship are being discussed and by May, I believe, we will have more to say."

"EDS will continue to provide theological education within an accredited and degree-granting program, we will carry out our historic mission to place gospel-centered justice at the center of that education, and we will provide financial strength and stability for EDS's future," explained the V. Rev. Gary Hall, Chairman of the EDS Board of Trustees, in the joint news release.

Most recently, Hall, a 1976 Episcopal Divinity graduate, was Dean of the National Cathedral. However, he retired at the end of 2015, two years earlier than expected, citing that the Cathedral needed someone who could provide leadership for at least a decade. He was replaced by Dean Randy Hollerith last October.

"The cathedral, however, is on the cusp of a new era. The next decades will require both the continuing evolution of its internal culture as it contends with the changing face of American religion and our country's increasing diversity, and a major capital campaign," wrote Hall in his 2015 resignation letter. "[A]t the age of 66, with two years remaining on my contract, I am not the person for the job ahead."


Episcopal Divinity School is one of the youngest and smallest of the Episcopal seminaries. It was formed in 1974 through the merger of the Cambridge-based Episcopal Theological School and Philadelphia Divinity School. Both Episcopal Theological and Philadelphia Divinity were on the brink of financial collapse when they joined forces to birth Episcopal Divinity School, thus incorporating elements of both names in the new seminary's moniker. Episcopal Divinity School is considered one of the most liberal seminaries The Episcopal Church has.

As an ultra liberal divinity school, EDS has taken the "oppression bull" by the horns. The "bull" being "racism, sexism and heterosexism" and that bull has gored them.

"A school that has taken on racism, sexism, heterosexism, and multiple interlocking oppressions is now called to rethink the delivery of theological education and just stewardship of its resources in a new and changing world," explained Hall in a July 21, 2016, EDS Board of Trustees meeting.

Episcopal Divinity's full embrace of feminism and lesbianism certainly helped to bring it down to a point when it can no longer be self sustaining. However, the seminary helped lead the charge for Episcopal inclusiveness on all levels, even if it brought on its own lingering death.

Just shortly after the school's 1974 founding, the Philadelphia 11 (women) were irregularly ordained by four retired, progressive Episcopal bishops into TEC's priesthood, even after the 1973 Episcopal General Convention officially rejected women's ordination for a second time. Then the 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis was forced to accept women's ordination in view of the fact that women were creeping into TEC's priestly ranks.

Several of Episcopal Divinity's faculty members took part in that irregular 1974 ordination of the Episcopal Church's first female priests, including faculty members Carter Heyward and Suzanne Hiatt, who were ordained as a part of the Philadelphia 11.

Both Heyward and Hiatt tenured at EDS. Heyward, considered a pioneer in feminist liberation theology, has retired from teaching and Hiatt died in 2002. As a result of Episcopal Divinity's participation in the Philadelphia 11 ordinations, many diocesan bishops refused to send their candidates for ordination to EDS for seminary training.

Episcopal Divinity was one of the first Episcopal seminaries to turn a blind eye to the immorality of homosexual behavior. As the school's tolerance of homosexuality increased, the school would become a leading center of LGBT studies within The Episcopal Church and eventually the wider Anglican Communion.

Wikipedia explains the growing homosexual culture at Episcopal Divinity: "In 1974, ethics professor, William Hayden McCallum, came out as a gay man to the school community. Associate professor and priest, Carter Heyward, came out as a lesbian to the church in a nationwide publication in 1979.

"By the 1980s, EDS permitted same-sex couples to live in campus housing as it did heterosexual couples previously. In 1995, when St. John's Memorial Chapel was opened to marriage services by Dean William Rankin, both heterosexual marriages and same-sex unions were permitted, contrary to the trend in The Episcopal Church at the time."

Finally, in October 2009, the Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale became the Dean of EDS. She was the first open lesbian to be dean of an Episcopal seminary. By that time, openly homosexual, Vicky Gene Robinson, was the IX Bishop of New Hampshire and Katharine Jefferts Schori was at the helm of The Episcopal Church as presiding bishop. Within six weeks, Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, would be elected suffragan bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

In 2007, even before coming to Episcopal Divinity School, Ragsdale made headlines when she said in a speech defending abortion: "Let's be very clear about this -- when a woman finds herself pregnant due to violence and chooses an abortion, it is the violence that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing."

For that statement, Ragsdale received the title of "High Priestess of Abortion" by Mark Tooley of Juicy Ecumenism, who considered her to be the "perfect icon for untrammeled liberal Episcopalianism" when she took over the reins at Episcopal Divinity School in 2009.

During her tenure at Episcopal Divinity, Dean Ragsdale, "married" her lesbian lover -- the female Canon to the Ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts -- with Bishop Thomas Shaw (XVI Massachusetts) doing the dishonors. Ragsdale stepped down from her Episcopal Divinity post in early 2015 and, at the time, the Board of Trustees praised her for her "vigor and a commitment to excellence" and in "keeping our tradition of being a respected and progressive center for study and spiritual formation for lay and ordained leaders."

Episcopal Divinity's liberal bias is reflected in its current selection of courses including: The Social Gospel & the New Creed (E-CS 1270); Unleashing Our Voices: Voice, Identity & Leadership (PT 1420); Teaching & Preaching Texts of Terror (HB-PT 2250); Introduction to Liberation Theologies (T 1044); Rituals of Humiliation (T-CS 2250); Church & Class(ism) in the U.S. Society, Preaching Liberation (PT-CS 2710); Eros, Sexuality, & the Spirit (T 2411); and What Do We Mean by Justice? (E-CS 1060).

However, there are a few traditional courses scattered among EDS's offerings including: The Book of Common Prayer (L-PT 2325); Chanting the Liturgy (L-PT 2010); and Teaching Others to Pray (PT 2120).


Wikipedia describes Union Theological Seminary as "the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship."

However, Union self describes as the place "where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice."

The seminary was founded in 1836 by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., but by 1893, Union "rescinded the right of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to veto faculty appointments, thus becoming fully independent" thus throwing off denominational oversight over the appointment of the Rev. Charles Briggs (1841-1913).

Briggs, a Presbyterian minister and an alumnus of Union, was rejected as the Chair of Biblical Studies in 1891 due to his questioning "the verbal inspiration of Scripture." While at Union, he taught Hebrew and Biblical theology as well as theological encyclopedia and symbolics. He was accused of heresy, of which he was acquitted. However, he was eventually excommunicated and defrocked by the Presbyterians, so he turned to The Episcopal Church, which readily embraced him and his questionable theology, thus ordaining him priest in 1899.

After shaking off the oversight of Presbyterianism, Union soon became the center of the emerging liberal theology stream of thought. It still serves as the hotbed of black theology, feminine theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, political theology, progressive theology and you-name-it theology.

Union says that it is "grounded in the Christian tradition and our ecumenical, interfaith commitment grows and strengthens through programs of exchange with churches and seminaries throughout the world. Informed by the insights of global theologies, Union embraces and addresses the richness and realities of religious pluralism to equip students to grapple with the grave issues of our age."

The seminary is deep into cultural diversity and total inclusion. "We recognize that our mission is best fulfilled when we notice and embrace diversity across all social identities (race, class, gender, sex, ability, faith/belief, sexual orientation, age and all of the dimensions of identity that live within us), and we cherish the fact that each member of our community brings a unique collection of identities and experiences that contributes to our collective dialogue," Union's developing Diversity Statement proclaims.

One of the ways Union sees itself fulfilling its commitment to inclusivity is through its worship experiences. "Union's worship answers the creative and spiritual inspirations of the community, offering everything from Zen Meditation to Sunday Evening Mass, spiritual direction to weekly chapel services," the theological college explains. "At Union, students have daily opportunities to engage in a wide diversity of spiritual formation."

As a theological school, Union works with several denominations to help with the postmodern progressive theological education of their students with an eye toward ordination. Through the years, Union graduates have served in 41 different denominations and faith communities. Nearly half go into congregational or specialized ministry, with 43% becoming ordained in their respective church body. Another 22% are engaged in social justice ministry and the remaining 23% go into academia.

Currently cooperating denominations who channel their students toward Union include: The Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

For Episcopalians to seek priestly ordination, they must learn about Scripture, Christian Church History including the Ecumenical Movement, Christian Theology & Missiology; Christian Ethics & Moral Theology; Studies in Contemporary Society including Racial and Minority Groups; Liturgics and Church Music; and Theory & Practice of Ministry which can be taken at Union. However, Union Theological Seminary advises its Episcopal students: "One year of study at an Episcopal seminary (following Union) is not uncommon. Typical Episcopal seminary course requirements (as determined by Bishop) include: Episcopal Church polity and canons; Episcopal Church history & liturgy; and Clinical Pastoral Education."

There is only one Anglican-based subject currently being offered at Union: Anglican Prose and Poetry (CH 317) which "offers an opportunity to explore the pastoral, devotional and spiritual literature of the first century of the Anglican tradition. This era was rich in controversy and debate, but it also produced profound and beautiful poetry, preaching and pastoral reflection. The course aims to show how a diverse, contested tradition encompassed different spiritualities and reflected them creatively in its literature. Authors reviewed will include Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, and George Herbert."

Other Christian denominational course offerings include: The Byzantine Christian Tradition (CH 302); Early Modern Catholicism (CH 385); Baptist History, Principles and Polity (CI 201); The Practice of Presbyterian Ministry: Worship & Its Reformed Theological Foundations (CI 213); The Practice of Presbyterian Ministry: Polity & Its Pastoral Applications (CI 203); Evangelism in the United Methodist Tradition (CHST 544); Topics in Evangelism: United Methodist Mission (PSTH 574); United Methodist Worship: Form and Freedom (PSTH 564); Forming Our Faith: Articulating Unitarian Universalist Identities (CI 222); United Church of Christ -- History and Polity (CI 202-Q); Martin Luther in History and Theology (ST 359); and Bonhoeffer and the Reformation Traditions (ST 372).

Some of Union's current non-denominational and interfaith offerings are: Biblical Theology in Interreligious Perspective (BX 303); Monster Heaven -- Discovering the Creatures of the Cosmos (OT 236); American Theological Liberalism (CH 236 & CE 239); Religious Movements from the Margins: A Look at the Prosperity Gospel in the US and Global South (CH 333); Religions in New York City -- Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (IE 102); Zen Meditation & Dialogue with Zen Masters (IE 203); Art and Interfaith Dialogue (IE 226); Mysticism and Revolutionary Social Change: Spirituality for Authentic Transformation (IE 312); Women, Islam, and Interpretation (IE 316); Women Transforming Religion & Society: Gender and Religious Leadership in American Judaism and Christianity (IE 236); Socially Engaged Buddhism (IE 240); Qur'an: Engaging a Sacred Text (IE 242); Love Meets Wisdom: Buddhist Christian Dialogue with Women's Eyes (IE 264); Islam and Religious Diversity (IE 320); Double Belonging (IE 327); Liturgy and Postcolonialism (CW 219); Eco-Feminism and Earth Spirituality Around the World (IE 336); Colloquium in Theology and the Arts (CW 280); Foolishness of Preaching: Preaching in the Black Idiom (CW 319); and Sacraments, Hospitality and Globalization (CW 223).

Also: Introduction to Judaism (IE 220); Liberation Theologies and Worship (CW 225); Preaching the Headlines (CW 229); Gender, Power, and the Pulpit (CW 231); The Journey of Development: Psychological and Religious (PS 204); Spiritual & Pastoral Care through Film (PS 318); Psychoanalytic Theory & Theology (PS 416); Critical Leadership for the Contemporary Church (RE 316); African Religions in the Americas (CS 335); The Liberative Spirituality of Archbishop Oscar Romero: His Challenge for Today (CS 209-J); Social Justice: Philosophical Foundations, Religious History & Current Struggles (CD 301); Liberation Theologies & Pentecostalism (CS 325); Process Theology (ST 318); The Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx (ST 337); Theological Anthropology in Womanist Thought (ST 362); Christianity and Evolution in Dialogue (ST 307); Black Theology (ST 352); The Life & Thought of James Baldwin on Race in America (ST 365); Christian Ethics of Immigration & the Borderlands (CE 321); Social Ethics in the Making (CE 322); Religious and Sexual Legacies of Slavery (CE 313); and The Three Ecos: Economics, Ecology & Ecofeminism (CE 316).

Some of this academic year's seminars include: City Faith Models of Urban Spirituality; Spirit & the Politics of Disablement; Trans Sounds of Black Freedom & Black Spirituality; Faith Seeking Understanding: Intentional Community from Medieval Model to Contemporary Example; Theological German -- French -- Spanish; Media-Savvy Leadership: Smartphones, Websites, and Theology; The Twenty-first Century Parish: Living the Dash Between the Nitty and the Gritty; Online as in Heaven: Doing Religion in the Digital Age; Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference -- Progressive African-American Faith Leaders; Ministry of Black Women's Self-Care; Intimate Peace, Intimate Justice: Responding to Domestic Violence & Intimate Partner Violence in Communities of Faith; and Religion & Faith in the Age of Trump.

The liberal New York ecumenical and interfaith seminary boasts of its "strong Episcopal presence."

"Union already has a strong Episcopal presence," the joint news release states. "Four of its 22 faculty members are Episcopal priests and five members of its board of trustees are Episcopalians, including the board chair, Wolcott Dunham, senior warden of St. James' Episcopal Church in New York City and former trustee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York."

According to Union's current course catalogue, the Episcopal priests who teach at Union include: Euan Cameron, assistant priest at the Episcopal Church of the Heaven Rest (Reformation Church History); Pamela Cooper-White (Psychology & Religion); Gary Dorrien (Social Ethics); and Lisa Posey Krakowsky, curate at the Episcopal Church of St. Luke's in the Fields, (Preaching, Arts & Worship).

Through the years there have been Episcopal clergy who have a Union Theological Seminary education as a part of their religious training, including: the infamous Charles Brings, the late Malcolm Boyd and Bishop Susan E. Goff (Virginia Suffragan).

The theological university has also drawn an interesting mix of professors, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) who, as student and teacher, did a teaching fellowship at Union. Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran, was so disgusted with Union's liberal slant that he stated: "There is no theology here," before returning to Germany at the outbreak of World War II. One of Bonhoeffer's teachers at Union was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). One of Niebuhr's Union colleagues was Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Currently, Roger Haight, an 80-year-old Catholic Jesuit, is Union's scholar-in-residence. In 2004, he started teaching at Union as an adjunct professor of theology. However, since 2009, he has been barred by the Roman Catholic Church from writing and teaching, even in non Catholic educational institutions for his unorthodox understanding of Christology.

Union also partners with other neighboring New York universities to broaden its academic offerings. Schools which cooperate with Union include: Columbia University (Ivy League); Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative Judaism); Manhattan School of Music (Music conservatory); Fordham University (Catholic); Drew Theological School (United Methodist); and Barnard College (Women's liberal arts).


The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (GTS) is, in fact, older than Union. As the Episcopal Church's oldest seminary, GTS was started in 1817 by order of XII Episcopal General Convention, which decreed that a general theological seminary be established in New York City for the express purpose of the "education of young men designed for holy orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church."

So, for two centuries, The General has been training Episcopal clergy under the motto of: "Sermo Tuus Veritas Est" -- Thy Word is Truth.

General offers a more theologically-based variety of seminary courses designed for the spiritual enrichment of the inner man, rather than championing a cultural cause through social engagement and political action. Along with the basic core courses focusing on the Old and New Testaments, church music, systematic theology, Christian ethics, pastoral care, Reformation history, homiletics, and Anglican studies, GTS' more traditional field of seminary courses includes: Philosophy for Theology (AT/ST 11); Creating Fertile Ground (HM 1); the History and Theology of Christian Worship (LT 1); Historical Theology (CH 1&2); Polity & Canon Law (PT 9); Christian Spirituality & Ascetical Theology (AT 1); Retreat & Quiet Day Leadership (AT 365); Contemplative Spiritual Direction (AT 310); Learn to Speak SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious): Ministry to the "Spiritual Independent" (AT 311); and 12-Step Spirituality (AT 380).

Historically, the Manhattan-based seminary, at 440 West 21st Street, only a few long blocks from Episcopal Church headquarters at 815 Second Avenue, attempted to be broad church and bridge the gap to hold together the tension between what the high and low church members believe and practice, with a nod to Anglo-Catholicity. However, though the years, The General's faculty has become liberalized and now accepts The Episcopal Church's current view of moral and theological issues. However, the GTS list of courses does not reflect the ultra liberalization found at Union or at Episcopal Divinity. New York's General Theological Seminary tries to remain a more spiritually rather than culturally focused mindset so, in all likelihood. it would not appeal to the type of student Episcopal Divinity School draws.


EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL: Student Body - 48; Fulltime Faculty - 4. MDiv students - 32; General theology students - 8; Advanced ministerial students - 6; Other students - 2. Basic MDiv tuition and mandatory fees per year sans room, board and books: $15,610. Degrees offered: Master of Divinity; Master of Arts in Theological Studies; Master of Arts in Theological Studies in Feminist Liberation Theologies; and Doctor of Ministry. Certificates offered: Certificate of Theological Study in Anglican Studies; Certificate of Theological Study in Christian Spiritualities for the Contemporary World; Certificate of Theological Study in Justice, Reconciliation & Mission; and a Customized Certificate of Theological Study. Boston Theological Institute Certificates offered: Boston Theological Institute in International Mission & Ecumenism; and Boston Theological Institute Certificate in Religion & Conflict Transformation.

UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Student Body 212; Fulltime faculty - 20; MDiv Students - 124; General theological students - 53; Basic MDiv tuition and mandatory fees per year sans room, board and books: $22,980. Degrees offered: Master of Divinity; Master of Divinity & Master of Science in Social Work (joint degree); Master of Sacred Theology; Doctor of Philosophy in Theology; Doctor of Ministry in Supervisory Spiritual Care Education. Diplomas and Certificates offered: None.

GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Student Body - 39; Fulltime Faculty - 5. MDiv students - 25; General ministerial students - 3; General theological students - 2; Advanced research students - 4; Other students - 5. Basic MDiv tuition and mandatory fees per year sans room, board and books: $15,400. Degrees offered: Master of Divinity; Master of Divinity with Honors; Master of Arts; Master of Arts with Honors; Master of Arts in Anglican Studies; Master of Arts in Ascetical Theology; Master of Arts in Biblical Studies; Master of Arts in Congregational Development; Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction; and Master of Arts in Theological Studies; and Master of Sacred Theology; Master of Sacred Theology in Spiritual Direction. Certificates offered: Certificate in Anglican Studies; Certificate in Ascetical Theology; Certificate in Biblical Studies: Certificate in Congregational Development; Certificate in Historical and Theological Studies; and Certificate in Spiritual Direction. Diplomas offered: Diploma in Anglican Studies.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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