The Rev. Canon C.K. Robertson Sermon
Sermon preached at the Eucharist in The Chapel of Good Shepherd, General Seminary
October 15, 2010 on the occasion of the meeting of Seminary Board of Trustees
The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, Ph.D.
I don’t like spicy foods. It’s strange, really. My mother loved her food fiery hot, the spicier the better. If it didn’t bring tears to her eyes, she said it was too bland. One might think, then, that it is in my blood, but no. A little black pepper is about as exciting as I can handle. So when I see something with curry or tabasco, I face a dilemma. I cannot get rid of it, so my only recourse is to dilute it somehow, add enough of something else—anything else!—to make it manageable. I cannot change the spice into something it is not, but I can find a way to make it less…effective.
Jesus’ words in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel offer an intriguing challenge to us today here at The General Theological Seminary. These words about salt and light come, we know, immediately after the Beatitudes. They form a bridge between the final blessing for those who are reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake to the practical challenges found in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. As such, these words about salt and light are properly understood as being words not for the masses but for those who claim to be disciples and disciple-makers, those whose actions, not just their words, would reveal whether they were building on solid rock or shifting sand. Indeed, as one of the first parts of the first set of teachings in this Gospel, these words about salt and light ultimately look towards the end of the story, to the risen Jesus’ command to make disciples, to baptize, to teach. Thus, while helpful for any part of the Church to read, these words are especially apropos for a system whose entire purpose is the training and formation of ordained and lay leaders to fulfill that great commission.The words are so familiar, however, that we may lose the essence of what is being said. We all know how the phrase “salt of the earth” is used to describe nice, decent, ordinary folk…but Jesus is talking about a lot more than simply being nice. Salt may be a preservative, but it does not preserve the status quo. No, that which it touches suddenly tastes different. In its own way, it spices things up. Light operates a little differently. It, too, is an additive, in that it is not inherently a part of the thing it touches. But when it touches something, when light makes contact with what was formerly in darkness, then suddenly it all seems different. Salt enhances, light exposes.
Both are change agents.
As some students here have heard me repeat, a former Army Chief of Staff once said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less.” We need salt. We need light. No, we need to BE salt and light for the sake of all those who live outside the walls of Chelsea Square. Now, change for change’s sake is not what Jesus was talking about. After all, we know that if you pour a pound of salt onto your friend’s meal, she is not going to be very happy about it. And if you shine a really bright light towards a colleague, he will probably shield his eyes since you are actually preventing him from seeing anything around him. Salt and light are to be added in appropriate amounts to those things you want to enhance or see. But I am not convinced that the danger before our Church is one of being too salty or too bright. No, I think the greater danger we face is the dilution of salt by adding in so many other unnecessary things. With light, we don’t even have to put it under a bushel; our danger is in hiding it behind multiple layers of stained glass so that you can barely make out anything else in the room. The danger for us is not too much change; it is the avoidance of it at all costs.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” It is, of course, a rhetorical question. Sodium chloride cannot lose its internal properties, but if it is diluted enough where you barely know it’s there, how in the world can you purify it, bring it back? The obvious answer is: you can’t. And once the Church has become irrelevant, how in the world can we hope to be a transforming agent for the world? Having lived and worked in the Church of England when I was doing my doctoral studies in Durham, I saw firsthand how few people went to church other than for special services of “hatching, matching, and dispatching,” as they said. I watched as the same parish church that was full to overflowing on a Saturday for the funeral of a beloved villager had only eight people in its pews the next day for Sunday Eucharist. When I asked one friend in my village why he did not go to church, he looked perplexed and innocently said, “Why would I?” The issue was not that he was against it. Rather, church and Christianity-as-represented-by-the-Church was, quite simply, irrelevant. We are not living in England or Europe, but in this case, sadly, we are catching up to them much faster than we want to admit. Only a few years ago, it was just the mainline churches that were in decline, as we were reminded again and again by other more robust denominations and independent megachurches. Now the most recent research shows that decline is almost universal, as the Southern Baptist Convention even experienced decline. When one Episcopal colleague heard this, he actually cheered. I hardly think any cheering is in order. “Why would I?” is a more pervasive, more perilous challenge before us than the usual inter- and intra-denominational conflicts that consume so much of our attention, our time, our energy. “Why would I?” is a question we must be able to answer.
Both before and since I became Canon to the Presiding Bishop, I have had the privilege of serving as a consultant, an outside voice, to congregational and diocesan leaders. Each time, I have begun by asking them a question: “Why do you exist? Why does you church, your institution exist?” I receive various responses, including looks of surprise, annoyance, or even anger. One vestry person actually shot back a verbal retort, “How dare you,” he said, “We’ve been here for over a hundred and fifty years!” I quietly replied, “I didn’t ask you how long you’ve existed. I asked you why you exist. What difference does it make to the world around you now that you are here?”
Years ago, in the first parish I served after ordination, I worked alongside a remarkable lay staff person named Louisa. Wherever she went, she exuded life. With whomever she met, she left an impression. When the cancer she thought was long gone suddenly reappeared, everyone around her began to mourn and grieve for her. She alone seemed unbowed; disappointed, yes, but unbowed. Not knowing she was walking up from behind, one friend was caught saying to me, “How awful that she is dying of cancer.” “Not so,” Louisa interjected, “I am simply living with cancer!” Until the moment she took her last breath this side of Paradise, Louisa did just that. Is it any wonder that lay leaders, priests, even a couple of bishops came to see her before she died, not so much to bless her as to be blessed by her.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Times change and situations seem to change, but there is still a great need for prophets, for God's ambassadors, to stand up and be counted.” This is true for us as individuals, and perhaps even more for us as institutions. Let us be living institutions, not dying ones. Dying institutions worry and expend their energy on preserving themselves and the status quo; living institutions are committed to doing whatever is needed to help effect the transformation of the world around them. Dying institutions are obsessed with immortality—with making sure they survive in the way they have always known; living institutions are open to the death of some things, knowing that only then can they experience the resurrection that leads to a new life. Every week, we proclaim that we are a people who believe in the “resurrection of the body,” but more often than not our actions say that what we really mean is that we believe in the “ongoing preservation of this body as we know it.” Resurrection people invest their five talents in change and as-yet-unknown possibilities. Preservation people horde and hide their one talent, burying it so that they pretend there is no risk.
Jesus had little problem provoking his listeners, including—no, especially—those who claimed to be God’s ministers. He did this because he desperately wanted to see them be what they could be. He wanted them to be salt, he wanted them to be light. He wanted them to be disciples and disciple-makers, change agents for the transformation of the world. Now, as then, he invests time and energy in such leaders, that we might dare not to cling to what we think can never change, but to open ourselves to new possibilities and resurrection hope. Let us be salt, let us be light, to the glory of God.
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New Program in Spiritual Guidance of Children14 September 2010
GTS to Offer New Program in the Spiritual Guidance of Children
New York City – Beginning this fall, The General Theological Seminary (GTS), in partnership with the Center for the Theology of Childhood, will offer an innovative certificate program in the spiritual guidance of children. The program will provide both academic learning and practical training for leaders who seek to nurture children’s relationship with God. The Rev. Dr. Jerome W. Berryman, noted author, educator, and founder of Godly Play®, will join members of the Seminary faculty in teaching courses about children’s spirituality, theological views of children, wonder and play in a theological context, and the spirituality of children in literature and film, as well as parables, biblical theology and liturgy with a focus on children’s spirituality.
“Children have a natural, deep spirituality,” said the Rev. K. Jeanne Person, Director of General Seminary’s Center for the Christian Spirituality. “They know God even before stories and symbols. They need adults who can nurture their sense of the holy and help them discover a language for their faith.”
General’s new program will equip faith community leaders, clergy, chaplains, educators, parents, and others to offer spiritual guidance to children. Courses are designed in intensive formats, taking place over a period of a few days or a weekend, to allow students to pursue study concurrent with other commitments, such as jobs and families. Dr. Berryman will teach the program’s inaugural three-day course, Theology and Children: Past, Present and Future, on the weekend of October 22, 23 & 24, as well as The Spirituality of Children on November 10, 11 and 12. The Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy, GTS professor of liturgics, will teach Children’s Spirituality in Worship on November 13 & 14.
Because the certificate program is new, General will offer rolling admissions this academic year which enables prospective students to apply at any time. The Seminary is also offering a discounted introductory tuition for students who pay for the entire program before October 1, 2010. Students are also welcome to register for individual courses to enhance their ministries, spiritual lives and relationships with children. Detailed information about courses and the certificate program, including housing options, can be found on the Seminary’s website, www.gts.edu.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with the Center for the Theology of Childhood in creating this unique program,” said Dr. Ted Gerbracht, the Seminary’s chief academic officer and himself a 35-year veteran of teaching and directing Christian education in a parish. “It’s really a groundbreaking venture for the Seminary,” he continued, “one that connects all the resources of the academy with children, who are the church’s future.”
The General Theological Seminary, located in the heart of New York City, educates and forms leaders for the church in a changing world. Founded in 1817 as the first theological seminary of the Episcopal Church, General offers certificate and degree programs including the Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Theology. The Seminary is also home to the Desmond Tutu Center, a full-service conference center with sixty modern guest rooms.
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Media Contact: Bruce Parker
Executive Director of Communications
The General Theological Seminary
175 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10011
(212) 243-5150 x285,
Lang Lowrey Appointed Interim President
General Seminary Appoints Interim President
New York City – In accordance with an action plan made at their meeting last month, the Board of Trustees of The General Theological Seminary on June 9 unanimously approved the Rev. Lang Lowrey III, 56, to be the Seminary’s Interim President. Lowrey is currently founding vicar at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Georgia and also serves as a senior partner in two Atlanta based firms, Renova, a bank restructuring and consulting company, and Genesis Business Advisory, which provides management and investment services to small- and mid-sized businesses.
Seminary trustees decided that the serious financial challenges currently faced by the Seminary would be most effectively addressed by dividing the position of Dean and President into two separate positions, a practice common in most academic institutions. As President, Lowrey will have all constitutional powers previously lodged with the Dean and President; however the Seminary will also begin an immediate search for a Dean to have oversight of the academic and day-to-day operations of General. “We believe Fr. Lowrey is uniquely qualified to lead the Seminary in addressing its immediate challenges and to prepare the way for longer-term leadership beyond the interim period,” said Chair of the Board’s search committee Dr. Michael Gilligan.
After college at Georgia Tech and Georgia State, Lowrey owned and ran several successful ventures before selling them to create Buckhead Technology Angels to incubate emerging technology companies. He twice was selected to run Fortune 500 firms facing difficult challenges, implementing complex turnaround plans and securing robust equity events. Following a period of discernment, he responded to a call to ordained ministry. As a postulant from the Diocese of Atlanta, he attended Candler School of Theology and was ordained to priesthood in 2004. Following parish ministry in Florida, Fr. Lowrey was asked by Bishop Neil Alexander to plant a church and day school in the Diocese of Atlanta. This new start involved locating, financing and purchasing land, designing the facility, building the church and most importantly, finding parishioners. St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church and Day School is now fully established, and is in the process of calling a rector to replace Lowrey, the founding vicar.
“Fr. Lowrey brings to GTS a unique combination of skills that match perfectly the Seminary’s immediate institutional needs,” said Board chair the Rev. Canon Denis O’Pray at a gathering of students, faculty, and staff following the Board meeting. “He has high-level and proven abilities in the areas of management, finance, and administration while also possessing an in-depth knowledge of the Episcopal Church and its ordained ministry.” Following the remarks by Canon O’Pray, Lowrey addressed the community. “God is offering us a great opportunity,” he told those assembled in Seabury Auditorium. “Dramatic actions are needed within the next sixty days but the opportunity to take this task and to succeed is truly awesome. We need to embrace the reality of the situation but I have confidence in our collective abilities.” O’Pray said that Fr. Lowrey would begin work immediately, before the departure of the Seminary’s current Dean and President, the Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing, so that there is ample time for the two to work together to ensure a smooth transition. Dean Ewing had announced in December of 2009 his intention to retire and, with his wife Jenny Ewing, to return to their family homestead in Ten Mile, Tennessee. On the evening of May 18 over 300 well wishers attended a Festive Farewell to the Ewings held in the space that will become the Seminary’s new library.
The General Theological Seminary in the heart of Manhattan is a vibrant community dedicated to the critically important enterprise of theological education. Founded in 1817 as the first seminary of the Episcopal Church, General cherishes its heritage while enthusiastically embracing the challenges of preparing leaders for the church in a changing world. Over the past decade, the Seminary has made a $70 million investment in preserving its landmarked campus; has opened a major conference facility, the Desmond Tutu Center; and has undertaken one of the largest geothermal initiatives in the northeast. General’s new state-of-the-art library is slated to open in 2011. The Seminary extends a warm invitation for all constituencies to share in its mission and in the excitement of its ongoing life.
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Executive Director of Communications
The General Theological Seminary
175 Ninth Ave. New York, NY 10011
(212) 243-5150 x285
Interim President's Letter to Students
A Letter from Interim President Lang Lowrey to All GTS Students
Dear Students of General Seminary,
As you may have read by now, on June 9 at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees I was elected to serve as your Interim President. I am honored to have been selected for this position. The trustees have asked if I could begin my work immediately and so I will be on campus three days a week for the foreseeable future. I have recently had an excellent conversation with Community Council President Elisabeth Tunney, during which she agreed that, because so many of you are off campus at this time of year, email is the most straightforward way for me to introduce myself to you.
The press release now on the GTS website will give you the details of my professional background. A cradle Episcopalian, I was ordained to the priesthood in 2004 and have spent most of my ministry at a parish in Georgia where I am the founding vicar. My last Sunday there is July 11 when I will be saying goodbye to my parish. I also serve as senior partner in two Atlanta firms offering financial services to banks and to small- and mid-sized companies. A number of the clients we have successfully helped in the past have faced financial situations not unlike those now being faced by GTS. I feel privileged to bring all of my skills, both priestly and those from the world of business, to my new job here at General. My first priority will be to address the serious financial situation of the Seminary.
I will not minimize the challenges that face us. The actions we must take need to be dramatic and immediate. Our single most important challenge is securing an influx of working capital to cover operating expenses for the upcoming school year. To meet this need we are exploring a number of options including sale of several apartments (which we now lease to outsiders), as authorized by the trustees. Of lesser urgency but certainly equal importance is the need to restructure the Seminary’s debt. General simply cannot afford to service its present level of indebtedness. The day following my election as interim president, I met with top executives of the Seminary’s primary lending institutions. I am pleased to report that we are close to reaching an agreement in principle that will allow us breathing room to envision our future.
The visionary undertakings of the last decade have brought the Seminary’s buildings, an important part of our historic legacy, into better repair than they have ever been. Without the critical expenditures that were made, many buildings would now be in a seriously deteriorated condition. Among the other initiatives, the Desmond Tutu Center is now a contributing resource to our educational mission, and the Seminary’s innovative geothermal system has become a model of environmental responsibility. Yet owing to unforeseen developments, the completion of these initiatives has left the Seminary severely overextended. This is a very serious but not insurmountable problem. Clearly, we must embrace the reality of our situation but, at the same time, we must seize the opportunity set before us to find a transforming solution.
In what I consider a very wise decision, the trustees, at their June meeting, have elected to separate the positions of Interim Dean and Interim President. Although the constitutional powers of the Dean and President have been lodged with the President, I will be continuing the search for a Dean to oversee the spiritual, academic and day-to-day operations of the Seminary. This position is expected to be filled before September. I am so very grateful for the friendship and guidance of Ward B. Ewing during this period of transition. Dean Ewing has graciously agreed to assist the Seminary and me during the months of June and July as Dean in Residence. I understand in August he and Jenny intend to begin the task of moving to their beautiful home in Tennessee.
I look forward to getting to know you all in the months ahead as we work together in the wonderful enterprise of theological education. I very much welcome your thoughts, suggestions, support, and prayers.
The Rev. Lang Lowrey
GTS Names Interim Dean
Bishop Peter Lee Named Interim Dean at General Seminary
New York City -- The Rev. Lang Lowrey, Interim President of the General Theological Seminary (GTS) announced today the appointment of the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, as Interim Dean of GTS, the Episcopal Church’s oldest theological seminary. The former Bishop of Virginia and one of the Church’s longest-serving bishops, Bishop Lee currently serves San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as Interim Dean.
After the Seminary’s 12th Dean and President, the Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing, announced in December of 2009 his intention to retire, Trustees of the Seminary formed a search committee under the leadership of trustee Dr. Michael Gilligan. Upon recommendation from the committee and in light of serious financial challenges faced by the school, Trustees decided in June 2010 to divide the post of Dean and President into separate positions. On June 9, 2010 the Rev. Lang Lowrey was selected as Interim President and charged with financial and administrative oversight of the school and was vested with all the constitutional powers previously lodged with the Dean and President. Meanwhile the search continued for a new Interim Dean to be responsible for day-to-day operations of the Seminary including oversight of its academic programs.
Bishop Peter Lee led the Diocese of Virginia for a quarter of a century, beginning his tenure as diocesan bishop in May of 1985. With 81,000 members and 181 congregations the diocese is the Episcopal Church’s largest in the continental US and also one of its oldest, having been founded in 1785. Retiring from the Diocese of Virginia in October of 2009 after 25 years as Bishop, he subsequently became Interim Dean at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, the Episcopal Church’s third largest cathedral. “We are extremely fortunate to have Bishop Lee’s notable gifts and proven abilities. He has a unique ability to shepherd others during these challenging times of change,” said President Lowrey following the appointment. “Bishop Lee has an in-depth knowledge of the Episcopal Church, its ministry, and its current needs and trends in theological education, which he has gained over a lifetime of distinguished leadership.”
Raised in Florida, Peter Lee was awarded his undergraduate degree magna cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1960. He served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and was decorated for his service in Seoul, Korea. He also had a brief career as a newspaper reporter and editor and studied law at Duke University before entering the Virginia Theological Seminary where he received his Master of Divinity cum laude in 1967. Ordained to the diaconate in 1967 and the priesthood in 1968, Bishop Lee served parishes in Florida and in Washington, D.C. For the thirteen years prior to his consecration as a Bishop in 1984, he was Rector of the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a ministry which served both the local community and the University of North Carolina.
Bishop Lee’s leadership abilities rose to national prominence when he was Bishop of Virginia. He is currently chair of the Board of Trustees of the Church Pension Fund and was co-chair of the Joint Nominating for the current Presiding Bishop. He previously served as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief and was chairman of its grants committee. He also served as a member of the Cathedral Chapter of the Washington National Cathedral. As diocesan bishop he served as chair of the governing body which owns Roslyn, the diocesan conference and retreat center, and as chair of the Trustees of the Funds of the Diocese of Virginia, an investment vehicle used by several diocesan institutions. He has served on the Advisory Committee to the Anglican Observer at the United Nations and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Bishop Lee has received numerous honors including the 1997 Jessie Ball duPont Fund Award for "courageous and bold commitment to community leadership and social ministry." He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates, from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1984, from the University of the South in 1993, and from Washington and Lee University in 1998.
A central aspect of Bishop Lee’s lifelong ministry has been his service to a variety of educational institutions. He has served on the Board of Trustees of two Episcopal seminaries, as chairman of the Virginia Theological Seminary’s board of trustees and also as a member of the board of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. As Bishop of Virginia he also presided at the annual meetings of the Church Schools of the Diocese and served as Rector of the Board of the Episcopal High School, a nationally-known institution set on 130 acres in Alexandria with a faculty of 83 and students from 30 states and 20 countries. Bishop Lee and his wife, Kristy, who have been married for 45 years, have two grown children and five grandchildren.
In recent meetings with GTS faculty members and staff, Bishop Lee spoke enthusiastically of the chance to work collaboratively with President Lowrey and the Seminary’s leadership to realize fully the many opportunities currently before General. He emphasized his commitment to the Seminary’s strong sense of community and to the centrality of daily worship, both longstanding hallmarks of life at General, and also to utilizing more fully the seminary’s urban location in training the church’s future leaders. “I believe the Episcopal Church needs to have a seminary in this most international of cities,” he told staff members. “General has always been a grand flagship in theological education and my plan is to do everything possible to see that this important ministry to the Church continues and flourishes.” Bishop Lee will end his Interim Dean responsibilities at Grace Cathedral on September 26, 2010 and will join General immediately thereafter. He will also be on the campus during Orientation Week to meet and greet students.
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Executive Director of Communications
The General Theological Seminary
175 Ninth Avenue - New York, NY 10011
(212) 243-5150 x285