An Episcopal seminary found a solution to its fiscal woes. Then 7 bishops intervened.


 (RNS) — A plan to save a troubled historic Episcopal seminary in New York has come under fire after seven bishops registered their opposition to offering a long-term lease of the seminary to a nonprofit with alleged ties to a Catholic music school funded by a conservative donor. 

The bishops, who lead Episcopal dioceses in New York and Long Island, issued a statement last month objecting that the School of Sacred Music, which is negotiating to sign a long-term lease with General Episcopal Seminary in New York, has ties to a donor that does not support rights for gay, transgender and queer people.

“We are concerned by the lack of full acceptance of the LGBTQ stance of its founders and the lack of transparency in its funding,” the bishops said, according to Episcopal News Service, an official church publication.

Founded in 1817, General, the Episcopal Church’s oldest and once most prominent school for training clergy, has, like many mainline Protestant seminaries, fallen on hard times in recent years. In the past fiscal year, it ran a $2.7 million deficit. The school’s campus, known as the Close, is also in need of tens of millions of dollars of long-deferred maintenance work.

The school recently replaced its residential student body with a hybrid online-in person Master of Divinity program and has little need for the dorm rooms and modest apartments that formerly housed students.

The General Theological Seminary hybrid MDiv students in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Jan. 2023, in Chelsea, New York. (Photo courtesy GTS)

Hybrid Master of Divinity students in The General Theological Seminary’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Jan. 2023, in New York. (Photo courtesy GTS)

A school spokesperson said the hybrid program has proved popular with prospective clergy. “Our hybrid MDiv is meeting a strong need in the church, and we currently have 96 open applications for 20 spaces for the 2024 cohort,” said Nicky Burridge, vice president for communications for GTS, in an email. “While the hybrid MDiv is highly successful, we do need to find a solution to cover the annual running costs of the Close and tackle previously deferred maintenance.”

The School of Sacred Music, which currently rents space at the seminary for vesper services two days a week, hoped to sign a long-term lease that would allow the seminary to retain ownership of its property.

“Any agreement would also likely see the SSM cover the running costs of the Close, pay GTS an annual rent, and carry out essential maintenance on the exterior of the buildings,” Burridge said in an email. “We cannot provide further details until we are closer to reaching an agreement.”

Negotiations on a lease for the Close, first announced in November, have been approved by the school’s board. At the time the negotiations were announced, few details about the nonprofit interested in leasing the campus were disclosed.

But earlier this year, local bishops — who have no direct authority over the school — and local government officials learned that the School of Sacred Music hoped to sign a long-term lease. The SSM was founded by the Ithuriel Fund, a nonprofit based in Connecticut, which has about $70 million in assets, according to IRS documents.

One of the donors to the Ithuriel Fund is Colin Moran, an investment banker and chair of First Things, a journal founded by the conservative Catholic priest the Rev. John Neuhaus. Moran’s ties to the school, according to Episcopal News Service, may have prompted concerns from bishops and local officials.  

Exterior of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the campus of The General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, New York. (Photo courtesy GTS)

Exterior of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the campus of The General Theological Seminary in New York. (Photo courtesy GTS)

Thomas Wilson, president of the School of Sacred Music, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Bishop Matthew Heyd of New York, one of the seven bishops who expressed opposition to the lease.

The New York Daily News reported that Erik Bottcher, the New York City Councilmember for the neighborhood where General Seminary is located, sent a letter of concern to the seminary earlier this year.

“It is essential that any new long-term lease or partnership aligns with the values of social justice, inclusivity, compassion, and diversity that the General Theological Seminary has long espoused — values that are deeply cherished by the residents of Chelsea,” that letter read, according to the Daily News. “It is essential that any leasing entity does not represent views that run contrary to these values.”

Seminary leaders say they have met with elected officials to allay their concerns. Any lease agreement would include “safeguards to ensure the Close remains a welcoming space to LGBTQIA+ persons and that any activities carried out there are consistent with a Christian education environment will be included in any agreement with the SSM,” said Burridge.

Burridge added that school officials are grateful for the concerns expressed by local officials and that negotiations on a lease are ongoing. 

The seven bishops who oppose the lease said they understand that the seminary is facing financial challenges but said that issues of inclusion are more important.

“We are also making difficult decisions about the future use of sacred spaces,” they said in their letter in March. “It’s important to make decisions that align with our mission and values. Human dignity is not negotiable.”

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