Thursday, October 2, 2014

Normal Enough

The following letter was emailed to the full Board of Trustees one hour ago.

Dear Trustees of General Seminary,

Yesterday I sent Bishop Sisk my two recent blog entries on what are trying times at General Seminary, where I was formed for the priesthood and given the freedom to work to build skills that enable me to excel at my first calling as communications officer for the Diocese of California. The links to the blog entries are here and here.

When I first read the faculty's letter of September 17 on Monday (which though heavily redacted by the seminary was released at least a day beforehand in full by the faculty) I was deeply troubled particularly by their claims of Dean Dunkle's sexist, racist, and homophobic comments — and the claim that he has desired the seminary to emphasize "normal people." My first reading of that comment made me think of a classmate who has planted a worshipping community, is a priest, and whose hair has never since I've known her been a naturally occurring hair color. She's normal enough for her manner of life to be found suitable to exercise the ministry of a priest, but wonder if she'd be considered normal enough to get Dean Dunkle's attention.

I am writing to you today not in anger; I've moved past some of that and it's what delayed my writing. I write in great sadness today seeing the faculty's claim — verified by a third party — of Dean Dunkle saying that he didn't want General to be known as the gay seminary. 1/3 of my class was gay men, but that leaves 2/3 who weren't. While the concentration may have been higher than some would have liked I would not be where I am if not for how General trained me.

I went to General Seminary from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, not answering questions to my bishop or Commission on Ministry that hadn't been asked. As far as anyone in Alabama / Florida knew I was single (though probably no one assumed I was straight). I came to General terrified of my bishop "finding out" and constantly looking over my shoulder. Because of the support of my classmates and faculty I moved from a place to fear to not being afraid, knowing that God was going before me. My counsel at General and back home encouraged me in this path. I do not regret taking it.

I am speaking gingerly about the faculty's claims because for the time being they are that — however I know the faculty. I have only met Dean Dunkle on one occasion, and it was as he chatted through the distribution of the Eucharistic Elements at a friend's ordination, unaware or uncaring that some people around him might consider that a time for prayer, quiet, and respect — not for networking and catching up.

The faculty who have been removed from their posts are people I know and cherish deeply, regardless of how much I enjoyed their class (or didn't). They are people I know to be good people of faith in their lay and ordained vocations who take counsel with others before they act, who discern in community, and who truly have the heart of students at General in their minds. I do not mean to suggest that Dean Dunkle is not deeply faithful person; I do not have the experience to know. I trust the words of the faculty and the words of students who were at General him, however. My conversations with members of the class of 2014 encourage me to take the faculty at their word in their allegations.

In a slightly different vein, I have been fraught and upset with the tactics and habits of some members of the board in engaging this conflict via social media with individuals, as well as the general silence from the board in response to the materials made available from the (former?) faculty. As a communications officer I know very much that my personal blog and social media presences cannot reflect on goings on in the Diocese of California; despite any disclaimer I make, I speak with the authority of the bishop's office. 

It has been disturbing to know that trustees have reached out to classmates and asked them not to share their discomfort (and retraction of gifts as a result of said discomfort) about the situation in public because doing so seemed indulgent and judgmental, ignoring that good people with good hearts were working and this was tearing down the body — as though racist, sexist, and homophobic comments didn't do the same, and silence on the issues builds up the body. I have been disappointed to see a trustee suggest that a media story was moving farther away from the truth — although no one was saying what the truth was other than that the faculty were lying. I am appalled that the first reckoning of the situation from the board was a board member's reflection on Facebook.

In the 21st Century it is unfair and unreasonable for those in leadership to say "I can't say anything else, but you have to trust me," when those who oppose them are saying, "They haven't listened to or trusted us until this point, so we must make a drastic move." It is particularly unreasonable to make that request four and a half years after being on the brink of absolute financial disaster. The deafening silence — or perceived silence — is only drown out by unofficial communication made in one-offs.

I understand the value of confidentiality on sensitive topics, but silence is not these same as confidentiality and discretion. A statement about the need for confidentiality and an awareness of the situation — before accepting untendered resignations during the course of an investigation — helps people have faith, grace, and patience. Failure to communicate (and collaborate) does not work in the 21st century. Google is more powerful than "please don't talk about this" and redacted letters. 

[Update 2:02 p.m. PDT, 2 October 2014: the final paragraph has been removed for the purpose of blogging to protect students on the Close who are the most vulnerable to retaliation currently.]

Normal enough for God,

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
M. Div. '12

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