Episcopal Divinity School trustees vote to pursue affiliation with Union Theological Seminary in New York

Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was formed in 1974 through the merger of the Cambridge-based Episcopal Theological School and the Philadelphia Divinity School. it is one of the smallest of the 10 accredited seminaries of the Episcopal Church. Photo: Episcopal Divinity School

[Episcopal Divinity School press release] The Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Divinity School Feb. 24 voted to pursue an affiliation with Union Theological Seminary that would create an EDS entity to provide Episcopal theological education and other programs at Union’s campus in New York.

The Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary has voted enthusiastically to support Union’s leadership in bringing negotiations with EDS to a successful conclusion.

“We are excited to begin negotiations toward an agreement that will allow EDS to achieve the three goals we set for ourselves when we began the process of assuring the seminary’s future,” said the Rev. Dr. Gary Hall, ’76, chair of the EDS board. “EDS will continue to provide theological education within an accredited and degree-granting program, we will carry out our historic mission to place gospel-centered justice at the center of that education, and we will provide financial strength and stability for EDS’s future.”

“We are thrilled that EDS’s trustees have made this momentous decision and we are excited about all it portends for the future,” said the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of the faculty and Johnston Family Professor for Religion and Democracy at Union. “The mission alignment between our two institutions is clear and strong. You can’t miss it!  This alignment assures that the deepest commitments of both institutions will be honored and strengthened in the years ahead.”

The two seminaries will begin negotiations immediately in the hope that both boards can vote on an agreement when they meet in May, before EDS’s final commencement at its Cambridge, Massachusetts campus.

“I am optimistic that this proposed affiliation will provide great benefits for both parties,” said Bonnie Anderson, Hon. D.D. ’06, vice chair of the EDS board. “An Episcopal entity at Union would be positioned to leverage resources for mission and attract new partners in New York City and beyond.”

Spurred by financial challenges that were depleting EDS’s endowment, its board voted last July to stop granting degrees at the seminary’s Cambridge location after the 2017 commencement in May, and to explore new ways of providing post-secondary theological education that emphasized the centrality of social justice in the Christian tradition.

The board’s New Directions Committee, chaired by the Rev. Anne Howard ’85, reviewed proposals from nine seminaries and divinity schools, and selected three finalists. After making site visits with the Rev. Dr. William C. Nelsen, EDS interim president, and Anthony Ruger, an expert on financial sustainability in theological schools, the committee recommended exploring an agreement to affiliate with Union.

“The quality and creativity of the proposals we received was gratifying,” said Howard. “After extensive research, we became clear that Union offers the best fit for EDS’s mission and historic commitment to justice.”

Union already has a strong Episcopal presence.  Four of its 22 faculty members are Episcopal priests and five members of its board of trustees are Episcopalians, including the board chair, Wolcott Dunham, senior warden of St. James’ Episcopal Church in New York City and former trustee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

“I look forward to the amazing possibilities of bringing an affiliation between Union and EDS into reality,” said Union Board Chair Dunham. “Our work together will surely expand the ways we serve the world and the church.”

EDS has adopted a generous severance plan for its faculty and staff, and all of its students are being “taught out” at other seminaries with EDS financial support to avoid additional costs for those students. Seven of the teach-out students are Episcopalians in an ordination process; they come from three dioceses. A number of the students included in the teach-out, which has been approved by the Association of Theological Schools, are international students, and EDS has retained an immigration lawyer to advise the students about maintaining their visas in the transition.

The seminary’s investments are currently valued at approximately $53 million plus its campus.

More information about the EDS plan is here.

Comments

  1. Richard Simeone says:

    Could it be that HDS and BU School of Theology were sharp enough to reject the EDS gang that can’t shoot straight?

  2. Rev Robert Maury Hundley says:

    I am a Union Grad, 1969. & have served in the UCC since graduation & have also spent 12 years serving in Episcopal Churches. While I am anti-Bishop, I generally feel at home with Episcopal Clerics. They are more liturgical than Union – if you are into church history, Episcopals are closer to Martin Luther, while Union is much closer to Luther’s Primary Professor Angreas R.B.von Karlstadt, the leader of the movement to secure Church lands for the Peasants who had worked the land for 300 yrs

  3. Len Freeman says:

    I htought we already had an Episcopal seminary in New York…. am I missing something here?

  4. Fr. John Farrell says:

    Excuse me, but isn’t there already an Episcopal seminary in New York City? Is this some sort of academic equivalent of sheep 🐑 stealing.

  5. The Rev. Donald Lowery says:

    Will they sell the Cambridge Campus?

  6. Peter Michaelson says:

    The mission and style of EDS is more like Union than like General. There is “sheep stealing” but it would be between Union and EDS. The issue for me would be whether a pied a terre in Cambridge can be sustained. It would be too bad to lose that. EDS’s condo relationship with Leslie U. May provide too much of an opportunity for divestiture of the rest of EDS’s interest in its campus, to pass up.

    FWIW HDS and Andover Newton have the same problems EDS has had, only more acutely. Joining up with either would be to combine weaknesses. (Evidently Harvard Corp. does not want to subsidize HDS indefinitely.) I don’t know anything about the status of BUST but their mission has never been much like EDS’s.

  7. I didn’t like, and still don’t understand, the way EDS Trustees went about shutting down the degree programs. That struck me as a major blunder. However, if the change had to come — as some folks I’d trust with my life say (e.g., Harvey Guthrie and others) — I can’t think of a better match than EDS and Union Theological Seminary in New York. Way more than any other theological school, Union shares EDS’s justice-centered commitments as basic, not subsidiary, to theological education and ministry. Godspeed to both sides of this promising team as you proceed! Many of us — students, alums, staff, and faculty from both schools — wish you well. We’ll be supportive and present in any ways we can.

  8. Tom Dahlman says:

    I am sure there were many good reasons for this decision, but those reasons won’t make sense to those of us not deeply familiar with the culture of Union and EDS. This feels like an insult to the good people at General. It also seems this could be challenged in the courts in that donors who give to seminaries typically do so because they want to fund theological education in their own denomination. Union is not an Episcopal Seminary, General is an Episcopal Seminary and could use the money. It could be that given the recent problems at General the board at EDS believes it can make the case that the best hope for Episcopal theological education in the area is at a school like Union, which may be true, but still hard to hear. As a loyal Episcopalian I hope someone somewhere finds a way to reverse this decision.

  9. Father Mike Waverly-Shank says:

    I am a 1966 grad of PDS. This is the 3rd attempted merger. In the 60’s an attempt was made to merge PDS with a Lutheran and an RC seminary. Then in 1974 PDS Merged and became EDS. If this merger goes through, I wonder what it will be called?

  10. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    As an Episcopalian with no tie to EDS but one who has followed its sad decline, I’m afraid that the school’s problems are almost entirely self-inflicted. Serious potential students are turned away by the emphasis on “gospel-centered justice” when there are other Episcopal seminaries offering a more serious curriculum whose sounder teaching may benefit them if the Episcopal church survives its present infatuation with “social justice.” I for one know that if I were shopping around for an Episcopal school of theology charging a hefty tuition I would indeed be turned off on learning that the former lesbian Dean of EDS not all that long ago referred to abortion as a “blessing” while demonstrating in front of an Alabama abortion clinic. Wouldn’t you be?

  11. Coincidence? In my inbox today: Alban Institute essay about a “good death” for Christian institutions. Seems appropriate to this matter… Like others above, what about GTS? How many mergers before EDS has frittered away its assets that might be used for another kind of mission? with some thoughtfulness? Of course, this is just a speed-rant in ignorance, but the thoughts do flit about my mind. Prayers for faithfulness to whatever Holy Spirit might be nudging (and an ability to “hear”)

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