“And there was war in Heaven.” Thus begins the reading from Revelation for the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, also called Michaelmas.
“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
This reading stuck in my head all day as I read and heard of turmoil at The General Theological Seminary. For those catching up, there is more information to be found here. In short, a Christian community dedicated to the formation of faithful leaders essentially has fallen prey to the old serpent which deceives.
In terminating the contracts of eight faculty at one time the leadership has hollowed out its core of rising stars and living legends alike. More than that, it has become the latest victim in the Church to zero-sum brinksmanship and posturing.
It would be cathartic to write a screed against the kind of leadership that leads to such an impasse yet I find myself wondering why I’ve been so impacted by this news.
The simple fact is that I love General Seminary. I love the idea of General. I love its traditions. I love its quirks and faults. I love its patterns of worship, community, and witness in the heart of the city of New York.
I first visited General on a prospective students’ day. I had moved across the street from another seminary in another state assuming that was where I would go. However, I was going to give General a try. I had lived in New York before and thought it would be nice to be back in the city for a day. I walked onto the grounds and was entranced. I met students there and was immediately drawn to their combination of wry wit and faithfulness. I went to solemn Evensong and the deal was sealed.
I fell in love.
Few General students can forget the matriculation service when, as David Hurd played riffs on Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, we all signed our names to a book that students from generations before had signed. Mine was particularly amusing to my classmates and myself – I was not yet officially a postulant from the Diocese of Connecticut – so I was announced not as a Master of Divinity student or the like. I was announced as the sole signatory of a column entitled “Students in Special Circumstances.”
I met friends I will have for life. We sat on top of the chapel tower drinking cheap beer and smoking middling cigars. We met on top of Sherrill Hall, the old building on Ninth Avenue that looked like the waiting room of a Stalinist airport, and talked of the world and the Church’s problems as the sun went down and the lights of the city came up. We had black tie celebrations and back room bets. We debated the creation of a dueling society to settle theological disputes. I spent many a night in our homeless shelter housed just across the street and talked of the Rolling Stones, pepper mills, the army, hummus, and powerful addictions with our guests.
I remember a lunchroom like Hogwart’s. I remember drunken ladies and gentlemen on 10th Avenue breaking up and getting back together in the course of a loud stumbling stroll from one end of the block to the other. I remember a southern-accented Latin graduation ceremony and the steady drumbeat of geo-thermal drilling our whole first year.
In our sophomore year, we were in charge of the Map-Quiz liturgy. A storied tradition in which the sophomore class welcomes the first-year students with a mock liturgy, procession, or the like during their first exam (the map quiz in Old Testament). Ours was a rollicking solemn mass of a liturgy that had too much smoke, too many copes, and just the right amount of laughter. It was so over the top that we may have been the last class to do one.
We elected a chief sacristan, the person in charge of our liturgical life, with a process that culminated with white smoke coming from The Chapel of the Good Shepherd. We had follies shows and dances and took the work we did seriously even if we took ourselves less so.
All of this and so much more was punctuated, marked, governed, and shaped by a commitment to prayer as a community. We were shaped in that holy space as we sat literally surrounded by the words of the ordination liturgy etched into the walls all around us. No day was without prayer and we learned that our lives, our time, was not our own – it was God’s.
I came to General to learn about being an Episcopalian – I had grown up Roman Catholic. I left not just learning about being an Anglican but loving being an Anglican. I learned to be a Catholic in the fullest sense of that word.
General has that effect.
I remember Fr Wright’s priesthood class in which we sat in a small group in his apartment and talked over the pain and joy of pastoral ministry.
I remember Dick Corney’s Old Testament class in which he asked a question on an exam about history and memory – I wrote a long dissertation on Dracula and Romanian dictatorship. He loved it.
I remember Deirdre Good’s class and learning of mountains, and haste, and the sea, and more – we learned of metaphor and richness in the New Testament.
I remember David Hurd trying gamely to help me sing the mass to little real effect despite his pounding on the keys of the piano to help me find a pitch I never heard.
I remember Drew Kadel revealing with glee the latest Oxford Movement tomes he had tracked down and knowing I would share his joy.
I remember the unwavering kindness of Mitties DeChamplain, the courtly gentlemanliness of Bob Owens, and the laugh of Ellen Sloan.
I remember Titus Presler abashed at ribald humor. I remember a toast to the Queen of Heaven at a dinner at which we all pretended, just for a night, that goodbyes weren’t coming.
I remember tests and stress. I remember rest and long commutes. I remember how we prayed.
Prayer centered the life of academic inquiry at General so that we were not a place concerned just with learning about God but a place in which we could deepen our relationship with God.
God spoke to us, changed us, and challenged us in class, in chapel, and in community.
Yet, there is always the danger of war – the danger that sides become so polarized that the only acceptable action is the utter defeat of the foe. There was war even in Heaven and yet, ultimately, we know that a victory was won. My hope is that we can remember that victory has been won for us and that our attempts to control, manipulate, and dominate are so often the throes of the dragon who still refuses to believe himself well and truly thrown down.