Bishops oppose General Seminary’s long-term lease with choral music school over LGBTQ+ inclusion concerns

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 11, 2024
Chapel of the Good Shepherd

General Theological Seminary, located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, regularly welcomes outside groups to use its facilities for events, including Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Photo: General Theological Seminary

[Episcopal News Service] The seven Episcopal bishops who serve the dioceses of New York and Long Island are publicly opposing the potential long-term lease of General Theological Seminary’s property and facilities to a nonprofit choral music school that has ties to Christian conservatives.

The School of Sacred Music, which describes itself on its website as “grounded in the Roman Catholic tradition,” has been using part of the seminary as its base since late 2023 through a short-term rental agreement. “We engage and inspire students and professional church musicians, members of the clergy, congregations, faith communities, and all interested members of the public,” the website says. The school’s vespers are now scheduled every Tuesday and Thursday in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

In November, the General Theological Seminary, The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary, announced negotiations with the school, then unnamed as the nonprofit, for a long-term agreement to lease and renovate the buildings on its close, or campus, in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Such an agreement, it said, would aid the seminary’s efforts to address ongoing budget shortfalls and deferred property maintenance while it focuses on growing its hybrid Master of Divinity program. Since 2022, the seminary has been governed through an affiliation agreement with Virginia Theological Seminary.

In late March, citing The Episcopal Church’s generation-long struggle toward full inclusion, the bishops released a written statement opposing the seminary’s negotiations with what they disclosed as the School of Sacred Music. “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 on March 22. “We recognize the difficult financial situation of VTS/GTS with the General Seminary campus. We are also making difficult decisions about the future use of sacred spaces. It’s important to make decisions that align with our mission and values. Human dignity is not negotiable.”

The statement was signed by Bishop Matthew Heyd, Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin and Assistant Bishop Mary Glasspool of the Diocese of New York, and by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, Assistant Bishop Geralyn Wolf, Assisting Bishop Daniel Allotey and Assisting Bishop William Franklin of the Diocese of Long Island. Both dioceses sponsor students at VTS/GTS and expressed support for continued program partnerships.

When asked to elaborate on their concerns, a Diocese of New York spokesman told Episcopal News Service that the bishops would be offering no further comment at this time. Long Island, copied on the request, also declined further comment.

The only contact information listed on the school’s website is an email address for Thomas Wilson, identified as president and master of chapel music. ENS sent him an email but has not received a response.

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean of Virginia Theological Seminary and president of General Theological Seminary, provided a written statement to ENS that disputed the bishops’ description of the School of Sacred Music and the seminary’s lease negotiations.

“GTS is committed to inclusivity and ensuring the close remains a welcoming space to LGBTQIA+ persons,” Markham said. “The School of Sacred Music is also committed to a spirit of ecumenism and inclusion of all people. Even so, safeguards to ensure LGBTQIA+ inclusivity will be included in any agreement.” He added that the seminary has “conducted extensive due diligence on the funding sources” of the school and is satisfied by its transparency.

After ENS asked about those funding sources, a spokeswoman for the seminary responded that the School of Sacred Music is a subsidiary of a nonprofit known as the Ithuriel Fund, with more than $75 million in assets. The major donor, though not the only donor, is Colin Moran, an investment fund manager who also serves as chairman and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

The institute is known for publishing First Things, a magazine and website that serves the institute’s stated mission, to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” Though the Episcopal bishops did not specify what they found concerning, some of the articles published by First Things under Moran’s leadership express particularly conservative views toward human sexuality.

In one recent article, for example, the headline asks, “Can Christians Attend Gay Weddings?” The author, Carl Trueman, offers his answer: No.

Markham, the Virginia Theological Seminary dean since 2007, has written at least three scholarly pieces on religious topics for First Things dating back to 1992, none of them related to sexuality. The most recent was in 2014. In response to an ENS inquiry about Markham’s connection to the publication, the seminary spokeswoman confirmed that Markham was a visiting scholar with the Institute on Religion and Public Life in the early 1990s, before Moran became the institute’s president. Markham, a Christian ethicist and biblical scholar, has also written many books.

Markham said through the spokeswoman that he did not know of Moran or the School of Sacred Music until June 2023, when he was introduced to the school by Christopher Wells, the former publisher of The Living Church. The School of Sacred Music soon began using part of the close through its short-term rental agreement.

The General Theological Seminary is The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary, founded in 1817. Photo: General Seminary.

Under the longer-term lease agreement that the seminary is pursuing, the School of Sacred Music “would restore the exteriors of all the GTS-owned buildings on the close, including the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, cover the expenses of the close and pay GTS an annual rent,” according to the November news release. “The arrangement would create income for GTS, enabling it to support and potentially expand its programs.”

As seminaries across The Episcopal Church have struggled to adjust to the needs of a denomination in long-term membership decline, General Theological Seminary has faced a particularly dire financial outlook in recent years. In its 2023 fiscal year, it had $7 million in expenses compared with income of $4.3 million.

In an update released the day of the bishops’ statement, Markham underscored the “significant revenue and cashflow challenges” facing the seminary. “The seminary has no funding source for any emergency capital expenditure, or deferred maintenance, which is estimated to be tens of millions of dollars.”

Markham also noted that the seminary board gave unanimous backing in November to enter negotiations with the school, and it again backed those negotiations in February.

Those negotiations are ongoing, the seminary told ENS this week. A variety of rental and lease options of different durations are under consideration, but the seminary declined to say more until the two sides are closer to an agreement.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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