NEW YORK — The lid has been lifted on a fierce internal battle at the nation’s oldest Episcopal seminary, which has lost most of its faculty over what they say is their dean’s intimidating, disrespectful leadership.
Eight of 10 professors who trained future priests at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan say they were fired this week after going on strike as a protest against the Rev. Kurt Dunkle.
Compounding the messy drama, seminary board members say the teachers had resigned.
In a letter to the seminary’s 86 students, the rebellious faculty members cited a “number of very serious incidents and patterns of behavior which have over time caused faculty, students, and staff to feel intimidated, profoundly disrespected, excluded, devalued, and helpless.”
For example, the faculty said in a separate letter to the seminary’s board of trustees, Dunkle once told a female faculty member during a meeting that he “loved vaginas.”
The faculty members say he also referred to Asian-Americans as “slanty-eyed,” spoke of how “black people can do such interesting things with their hair,” and suggested that the General Theological Seminary should not be a “gay seminary,” but rather that the institution should emphasize “normal people.”
Dunkle left his Florida ministry to become dean last October. Under him, the faculty wrote to students on Sept. 26 that, “The working environment has become unsustainable.”
The professors said they would stop teaching and participating in common worship until they could meet with the board. But on Sept. 30th, the board announced that the eight had resigned.
Andrew Irving, who teaches church history, says that’s not true. “We wish to underline that we have not resigned,” Irving wrote in a statement cited by the Episcopal Cafe, an independent website.
Seminary spokesman Chad Rancourt said the seminary has hired an outside attorney to investigate the various allegations, and there would be no comment until this process was completed.
On Oct. 1, the head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, joined about 50 seminarians and the embattled dean at their morning prayers in the school’s chapel.
“We are standing in the middle of chaos,” seminarian Nancy Hennessey told the gathering of somber-faced faithful as she stood under the altar in blue jeans, running shoes and a purple sweater. “But we need to stand here, vulnerable and open and calm.”
The 200-year-old red brick seminary buildings ring a lush green private garden — a peaceful oasis in the urban hubbub. But the idyllic surface belies the internal turbulence.
The seminary recently underwent a massive restructuring, including selling off part of some properties to eliminate $40 million in debt.
The seminary is now left with only two active, full-time professors as it struggles to balance its current budget, having covered the debt.
The Rev. Ellen Tillotson, a Connecticut priest who is a board member, summed up the debacle on her Facebook page, saying, “Like many of you, I am heartsick.”
In the chapel Oct. 1, seminarian Charles Bauer read a daily scripture from the Gospel of Luke that by chance reflected the painful reality: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.”
Wearing her bishop’s collar and a simple gray suit, Schori sat quietly among students in a pew and did not speak.
After the prayers, the nation’s highest ranking Episcopal prelate for about 2 million followers listened to a throng of seminarians who shared their concerns with her under the arching stained-glass windows. Some offered each other smiles and intense hugs of support.
Standing apart, Dunkle instructed an Associated Press reporter seeking comment to turn to his spokesman, who escorted the reporter to the iron-barred exit gate, saying this was private property.
While faculty and students were judicious in their use of language, various media unleashed a torrent of no-holds-barred comments on the prickly situation.
“What The Hell Is Happening At General Theological Seminary?” read a Huffington Post headline. Another on the website called it “The Madness of Rev. Kurt Dunkle and the Trustees of General Theological Seminary.”
But all sides agree on one thing: “We sincerely hope that it will be possible to achieve reconciliation,” said the Rev. Jason Poling, an advanced studies seminarian from Maryland. “We’re deeply saddened, and angry, and frustrated.”
Late Oct. 1, the board’s executive committee said they emailed the eight faculty members and offered to meet with them on Oct. 16.