In a surprise move, the Board of Trustees for one of the 10 schools educating Episcopal Church seminarians has voted to cease granting degrees at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 school year. It is unclear how Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Massachusetts might continue on, with the board stating that it “will explore options for EDS’s future” in the coming year.
Interim Dean Francis Fornaro, who took office in March of 2015 following the departure of former Dean Katharine Ragsdale, will resign in November and stated “I totally disagree with this resolution.” Fornaro is a 1996 graduate of the seminary and previously served as adjunct faculty there.
“A school that has taken on racism, sexism, heterosexism, and multiple interlocking oppressions is now called to rethink its delivery of theological education in a new and changing world,” declared former Washington National Cathedral Dean and EDS Board Chairman Gary Hall in an official announcement. “Ending unsustainable spending is a matter of social justice.”
Hall has significant history with multiple theologically progressive, financially struggling institutions: he also presided over the final years of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary of Evanston, Illinois before it merged with Bexley Hall Seminary of Ohio to form Bexley-Seabury. In 2015, Hall announced that he was stepping down as head of the National Cathedral early, in order for another official to be named that could complete a 10-year fundraising campaign to stabilize the financially struggling church.
Episcopal Divinity School was formed from the 1974 merger of Philadelphia Divinity School and Episcopal Theological School, both of which trace their origins to the mid-1800s. The Cambridge, Massachusetts seminary sold property worth over $33 million to neighboring Lesley University in 2009 in an effort to pay off outstanding debt and regain the school’s financial footing. According to The Living Church, EDS draws 7 percent from its $66 million endowment to cover operating costs; 5 percent or less would be considered sustainable.
In early 2015, Dean Katharine Ragsdale announced that she would be departing as head of the seminary after five rocky years there marked by intense disagreement between faculty and the administration.
Several Mainline Protestant seminaries have been under financial stress in recent years, with American Baptist Churches USA (ABC) and United Church of Christ (UCC)-affiliated Andover-Newton Theological School – the oldest graduate theological institution in the United States – announcing intent to sell its campus and end its residential study program. In January, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia announced that they would each close and re-launch as a single institution.
Of those schools educating Episcopal Church seminarians, the denomination’s flagship General Theological Seminary in New York faced turmoil in 2014 as Dean Kurt Dunkle met opposition from a majority of faculty whose “resignations” were accepted by the GTS board despite not being offered. Eight of the nine dismissed faculty were later “provisionally” reinstated and much of the faculty has since turned over.
Episcopal Divinity School is regarded as one of the Episcopal Church’s most liberal seminaries. The seminary’s board describes EDS as “leaders in educational programs that are enlivened by theologies of liberation, especially the many voices of feminist, congregational, ecumenical, and global studies.”
According to EDS Board Treasurer Dennis Stark, “We are spending six million a year from our endowment, and 30 percent of that is above a reasonable amount.”
According to the school, EDS’s investments are currently valued at approximately $53 million plus the real estate value of its campus, which is adjacent to Harvard University. More than half of the endowment is restricted.
UPDATE [7/22/2016]: Anglican Ink reports that another progressive Episcopal Church seminary, Bexley-Seabury, is closing its Columbus, Ohio campus partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary and will consolidate its presence at UCC-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary. Bexley-Seabury had already shuttered a Rochester, NY campus partnership with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2008. Bexley-Seabury has a full-time enrollment of 17 students and four full-time faculty as of autumn 2015.
UPDATE [8/9/2016]: EDS Chair Gary Hall writes about the seminary’s transition planning here: “The endowment has been dwindling at an alarming rate (see Anthony Ruger’s financial presentation to the trustees) in the last several years as we sought to maintain degree programs that are not sustainable.”