Virginia Theological Seminary Dean Ian S. Markham caused a stir last year after giving a provocatively titled address at the Diocese of Delaware convention on “The Myth of the Decline of the Episcopal Church.”
Recalling that the denomination was not in a state of decline in the 1990s, Markham insisted that the Episcopal Church was primed for a turnaround after shedding hundreds of thousands of members in the 2000s. The address was met alternately with appreciation and incredulity from different corners of the Anglican/Episcopal blogosphere.
Markham has been a voice unabashedly predicting a positive future for the shrinking denomination. But now the institution Markham leads – the largest of the Episcopal Church’s 11 accredited seminaries — may itself be seeing a decline in support.
Giving to the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) Annual Fund has dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2006, the Alexandria, Virginia-based school received $1,050,000 from parishes, alumni and other supporters. By Fiscal Year 2013, giving to the fund had been cut nearly in half, dropping to $538,000.
VTS officials have not let the shortfall go unnoticed, with Markham making development of the Annual Fund a priority for Fiscal Year 2014.
With an endowment of nearly $140 million to draw upon, the near-term survival of VTS is not in question. Unlike financially strained Episcopal seminaries such as General Theological Seminary, Episcopal Divinity School and recently merged Bexley-Seabury, VTS has not necessitated the sale of property to reduce debt or fund operations.
VTS has continued to receive gifts in excess of $5,000 from moneyed Episcopal congregations such as St. Paul’s of Richmond, Christ Church Cathedral of Indianapolis and St. Martin’s Houston, the largest in the 1.8 million-member denomination. A handful of foundations offered $25,000 or more, alongside Trinity Wall Street in New York, the wealthiest parish in the church. Individuals, including litigator and Chancellor to the Presiding Bishop David Booth Beers, contributed in excess of $2,500 to the school last year. Still, VTS has seen funding decline sharply.
Data provided from the Association of Theological Schools shows a total 2012-2013 enrollment of 250 in VTS, with 169 full-time students taking classes — large by Episcopal standards but significantly smaller than some peers in oldline denominations.
In 2010, the seminary’s late Victorian wooden chapel was engulfed in a fire that inflicted an estimated $2.5 million in damages. The 1881 structure has been turned into a memorial garden and a new chapel is under construction.
Update – Dean Ian Markham responds: “As I understand your piece you are citing the 2012-2013 Annual Fund data as evidence of declining support for the Seminary. I am puzzled however why you didn’t take into account the Capital Campaign which was running parallel with our Annual Fund during this year. This is the season when the Seminary raised $14.4 million for our new Welcome and Worship Quad. So if gifts are your indicator of institutional strength, then surely the combined totals of Annual Fund and the Capital Campaign are indicative of deep strength.”