I had not anticipated the level of grief.
The departure of Episcopal Divinity School to New York City was announced in February. The trustees had declared last summer that the school would cease granting degrees in Cambridge as of May 2017. The decision to partner with Union Theological Seminary represents a new identity for the school. UTS is a venerable institution with a history of outstanding scholarship and a commitment to the social gospel similar to that of EDS. No doubt God will use this partnership in fruitful ways. The announcement of Kelly Brown Douglas as its new dean augurs well for the future strength and vision of the institution in its new incarnation.
Nevertheless, for the moment, we are sad. The process leading to this decision was not that for which many of us had hoped. And here in eastern New England we grieve the loss of an Episcopal seminary in our local area. While not lacking for strong centers of theological education in greater Boston, we will miss the presence of our own resource for denominational formation and gathering.
Last Thursday I had the honor of offering the closing benediction at the final EDS Commencement in Cambridge and giving the final blessing at the last EDS Alumni Eucharist the next day. The Commencement was, as such moments always are, full of latent possibility as we rejoiced with those who received their degrees and prayed for their future ministries. For faculty, staff and alumni, those 36 hours were also full of bittersweet memories of formative years and deep friendships.
As a member of the EDS Class of 1987, I was marking my 30th reunion year. My memories of EDS in the mid-1980s are not without complication. It was a time of some considerable conflict and challenging community dynamics at the school. Chapel life in particular was fraught. And yet it was simultaneously a place of manifold grace and genuine formation for ministry in church and world, a blessing for which I have always been deeply grateful. At last week’s final Alumni Eucharist I found myself offering prayers of deep gratitude for that blessing.
What I had not anticipated was the level of deep grief that I experienced in that moment. St. John’s Memorial Chapel and its surrounding campus was a place where I had been taught well by so many devoted faculty members; a place where I formed lifelong friendships; a place where our elder son was baptized; a place of altogether singular influence on my identity as a priest.
As we sang and prayed all of this was viscerally real to me, and I could not help but weep. Momentarily present there in that chapel were all the remarkable, committed and quirky professors from whom I had learned, in both classroom and refectory. Present with me were classmates and friends with whom I had exegeted Scripture; conjugated Greek verbs; wrestled with process theology; practiced chanting the collects; dreaded the GOEs; and contemplated resolving the campus housing shortage by turning the quad into a KOA campground. Present also were support staff personalities who oversaw with an eagle eye my operation of the refectory’s Hobart dishwasher, and insisted (unfairly!) that I must have put coffee grounds down the kitchen sink at Kirkland Street housing.
All of those saints and more, living and dead, joined with alumni, faculty and friends as we celebrated the final moments of this final Eucharist of the final school year at EDS in Cambridge. They were all there!
In coming days we will pray earnestly for the fruitful vocation of EDS at UTS. On this day we pray with the deepest gratitude for the manifold gifts offered and received at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Thanks be to God.
Here is the final blessing which I offered at that closing Eucharist.
Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
May the God of faith grant you the courage born of the assurance of things not seen;
May the God of hope renew your confidence and preserve you from despair when that arc of the moral universe seems to have bent in the wrong direction;
May the God of love empower you as an agent of that love, having been strengthened in this place to strive relentlessly for the justice which incarnates love;
And the blessing, mercy, and grace of God Almighty, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, be upon you and those you love and serve, this day and always. Amen.