[Episcopal News Service] General Theological Seminary in New York would affiliate with and effectively relinquish its governance to Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria while formally remaining two distinct institutions, under a partnership plan that is moving toward the final stages.
The plan was discussed at a June 16 online meeting of the 80th General Convention’s Agencies & Board committees and was detailed in a report by The Living Church. It partly hinges on General Convention’s approval next month of a resolution, A139, that would extend authority to General Theological Seminary’s board of trustees to change the Episcopal seminary’s constitution.
The church’s two oldest seminaries have been fleshing out the details of a partnership since announcing preliminary talks in January 2021. At the time, the seminaries underscored that their growing collaboration was not a merger, but reflected a mutual interest in “shared leadership” and in developing “shared programming and some form of collaborative governance.”
The Very Rev. Michael DeLashmutt, acting dean and president of General Theological Seminary, confirmed to Episcopal News Service the outlines of the affiliation that now is proposed, saying it was driven by financial necessity at his seminary. “We absolutely needed to find some kind of partner,” DeLashmutt told ENS in a phone interview. “We can’t make it alone, as a stand-alone institution, which was difficult to realize but also not uncommon among theological schools.”
General Theological Seminary’s budget for the 2021-22 year is balanced at $6.8 million, he said, but the school projects annual shortfalls of $800,000 to $1.5 million going forward because of a decline in giving during the pandemic and the cost of catching up on deferred maintenance on its small campus in Manhattan. Enrollment also has declined, from 150 students in fall 2011 to 51 in fall 2021.
DeLashmut and the Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, hinted at the latest developments in their partnership talks in March 2022 messages to their campus communities, which referred to the signing of a “memorandum of understanding” on a closer affiliation.
“The goal is simple,” Markham said in his March 18 message. “We aspire to serve God and the church more effectively by drawing on the legacy and experience” of General Theological Seminary.
DeLashmutt called this “a truly exciting moment” in his March 21 message. He described the plan as “a formal process of affiliation” that “has effectively secured the legacy of General Seminary for many decades to come.”
The two institutions’ boards of trustees could approve the agreement as early as next month. DeLashmutt told ENS that the plan would maintain two boards, but the rosters of the two boards would become the same, with some General trustees combined with a larger number of Virginia trustees.
DeLashmutt declined to go further into the specifics of that proposed arrangement for governance and administration, since the plan is still pending, but The Living Church quoted Markham as saying the combined board of trustees would be made up 32 members from Virginia and eight from General, with both seminaries being led by the administrators at Virginia.
Through a Virginia Theological Seminary spokesman, the seminary’s leaders declined to speak to ENS about the affiliation plan for this story, preferring to wait until after the two boards vote on it.
General Convention founded General Theological Seminary in 1817, and it remains both the church’s oldest seminary and the only Episcopal seminary with a formal relationship with General Convention for its governance. General Convention chooses three of the seminary’s trustees, and it must approve of any changes to the seminary’s constitution.
Resolution A139 would grant the seminary’s board of trustees the independent authority to change the constitution, providing it with the flexibility needed to finalize an affiliation with Virginia Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1823.
After the June 16 hearing, the resolution was recommended by the bishops’ and deputies’ committees on Agencies & Boards for consideration by the full houses when they meet July 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland.
The resolution was proposed by General’s Board of Trustees, and its explanatory text reaffirms the seminary’s commitment to serve the church. “By decoupling from the General Convention, General is not severing ties with our beloved church, nor are we devolving into a generic Protestant seminary,” the explanation says. “Rather, this freedom grants General the ability to lead a new life in partnership with another institution, so that we can continue to serve in the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.