Editor’s note: Reporter David Paulsen, who lives in southeastern Wisconsin, knows some of Nashotah House’s faculty and staff members socially. He did not speak about this article with any personal acquaintances at the seminary before its publication.
[Episcopal News Service] When Geoff Clark-Tosca discerned a spiritual call to study theology, Nashotah House Theological Seminary was his first choice. As one of The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminaries, Nashotah House is steeped in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, much like Clark-Tosca’s experience with “High-Church” worship at his home parish, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California.
In April 2021, Clark-Tosca was accepted into a hybrid remote degree program at Nashotah House and prepared to start classes that July. Before attending, he decided to spend two days visiting the campus, nestled in the bucolic Wisconsin countryside about a half hour west of Milwaukee. The visit confirmed for Clark-Tosca that he had chosen the right school for him.
Even so, Clark-Tosca detected some awkwardness. While he was dining in the refectory with members of the Nashotah House community, a seminarian saw the wedding ring on his hand and asked him if he had any family. Yes, he responded, “If you mean a husband and two cats at home.”
Clark-Tosca described the room’s reaction in an interview with Episcopal News Service: “You could hear a pin drop.”
Nashotah House is known in The Episcopal Church for adhering to a theology that is more traditional or conservative than much of the wider church, including on marriage equality. Still, Clark-Tosca said he initially had no reason to think his attendance would be a problem. The month after his visit, however, the director of admissions contacted him and advised him to put his plans “on hold.” Days later, he took a call from Garwood Anderson, the seminary’s dean. Anderson said Clark-Tosca’s acceptance had been rescinded because his marriage to another man violated the policies outlined in Nashotah House’s student handbook that reflect the seminary’s stated theological identity.
Clark-Tosca, 45, told ENS he was stunned. He added that Anderson, too, seemed distraught over sharing what the dean described to him as an ultimatum from members of the seminary’s governing boards, which include several bishops affiliated with the breakaway Anglican Church in North America.
“He was crying,” Clark-Tosca said of Anderson. “I think my first question to him was, are you serious? Because I could not believe that an Episcopal seminary would do this.”
After spending the rest of 2021 fighting unsuccessfully to regain admission to Nashotah House, Clark-Tosca enrolled in a different hybrid program, through the ecumenical Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia, Canada. He had all but put the distressing episode with Nashotah House behind him when ENS tracked him down this month.
ENS sought his story after discovering his discrimination case by chance in an online search. That search turned up a document from Clark-Tosca’s federal discrimination complaint against Nashotah House, filed in 2021 with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The document, dated October 2021, was a rebuttal to Clark-Tosca’s complaint and was signed by Anderson, the dean, and the Rev. Edward Monk, a priest in the Diocese of Dallas who serves as chairman of the Nashotah House Board of Directors.
In the document, Anderson and Monk cited the seminary’s “traditional Christian beliefs” and claimed a faith-based exemption from the federal anti-discrimination laws that regulate other educational institutions. Nashotah House’s beliefs, they said, include “that sexual relations are appropriate only between a man and a woman who have been united in Holy Matrimony.” The document concluded that Clark-Tosca “was denied admission because he is in a same-sex marriage and … unable to affirm the Matriculation Oath that requires obedience to the seminary’s Christian beliefs.”
The Office for Civil Rights concluded that the legal exemption claimed by Nashotah House was valid, and in December 2021, it dismissed Clark-Tosca’s complaint.
ENS requested comment for this story from Anderson, Monk and others in the seminary’s administration. A seminary spokesperson responded by releasing a written statement that reaffirmed Nashotah House’s theological beliefs but declined to answer any ENS questions about the decision to block Clark-Tosca from attending the seminary. “Respecting the privacy of prospective students, Nashotah House does not comment on the admissions status of its applicants,” the statement said.
The Episcopal Church has its own anti-discrimination policies adopted through General Convention resolutions, which include protections for LGBTQ+ clergy and lay leaders. That said, General Convention has no role in the governance of most of the nine officially recognized Episcopal seminaries. Nashotah House, with Episcopal roots dating to its 1842 founding under Bishop Jackson Kemper, is operated as an independent academic institution.
Church leaders told ENS there is no explicit canonical process for officially recognizing an Episcopal seminary. Instead, the distinction is maintained more as a matter of custom, signified by the seminaries’ inclusion in a list published each year in the Church Annual and on The Episcopal Church’s website.
Nashotah House, with reported enrollment of 115 students in fall 2022, has long been unique as an Episcopal seminary whose Anglo-Catholic faculty, students and governing boards have straddled theological currents and crosscurrents within The Episcopal Church. Those currents have, at times, threatened to overwhelm the church, particularly in the past 20 years amid a greater churchwide shift toward full LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Tensions over gay clergy, as well as lingering theological disagreements over women’s ordination, engulfed the denomination in schism after the 2003 ordination of the church’s first openly partnered gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, in the Diocese of New Hampshire. Some conservative bishops led a breakaway movement that resulted in the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA, followed by prolonged legal battles between The Episcopal Church and ACNA over church property.
More recently, in 2015, General Convention approved marriage rites for use by same-sex couples, and a subsequent resolution in 2018 extended those rites’ availability to all dioceses where gay and lesbian couples can legally marry under civil law, including dioceses led by bishops who are theologically opposed to same-sex marriage.
Only one Episcopal bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Love, who led the Diocese of Albany, openly refused to abide by the 2018 resolution. He continued to block same-sex couples from marrying in his diocese, resulting in disciplinary action against him. In April 2021, Love left The Episcopal Church for ACNA after being punished for rejecting General Convention’s authority on the issue.
Despite his exit from the church, Love remains in the leadership at Nashotah House. In spring 2021, during the months when Clark-Tosca was accepted and then rejected by the seminary for being a married gay man, Love was one of at least four ACNA members listed on the seminary’s website as directors serving on its day-to-day governance body, according to an archived webpage. That operational Board of Directors is overseen by a separate and larger Board of Visitors, the seminary’s corporate governing body.
Love later stepped down from the Board of Directors and is now listed as one of 31 members of the Board of Visitors, a mix of clergy and laity from both The Episcopal Church and ACNA, including at least three other ACNA bishops.
Clark-Tosca told ENS he grew up in the Southern Baptist and United Methodist denominations. The history of divisions within The Episcopal Church was mostly unknown to him when he first set foot in St. Thomas the Apostle at Christmas in 2017, he said. He was introduced to the LGBTQ+-affirming congregation by the man he recently had begun dating, Ed Tosca – the man who later would become his husband.
Seminary’s warm welcome turns quickly to rejection
Clark-Tosca is originally from Alabama and Georgia but has lived the past 22 years in Los Angeles, where he works in health care administration. He met Ed Tosca, a flight attendant, about six years ago, and they began regularly attending St. Thomas the Apostle together.
“I fell in love with the liturgy and the Anglo-Catholic tradition,” Clark-Tosca told ENS. The couple married in May 2019. Their wedding, which Clark-Tosca called traditional, was attended by about 200 friends, relatives and parishioners. They never doubted that their ceremony would be held in an Episcopal church. “Because St. Thomas has always been so affirming, I don’t think we had any hesitation.”
Later in 2019, he told St. Thomas’ rector, the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies, that he was interested in studying theology, and Davies guided him through the discernment process and options for theological education. Nashotah House quickly rose to the top of his list because of its reputation as a historic Anglo-Catholic seminary and its low-residency degree program that would have let him complete much of the coursework from Los Angeles. “I liked what I heard about the program and the rigor and really the structure that they had for hybrid students,” he said.
Clark-Tosca applied just before a February 2021 deadline to pursue a master’s degree in theological studies, and he was soon notified of his acceptance, by phone and then by letter. The letter, dated April 26, said the seminary “will be incredibly blessed to receive you as a student into our community” beginning with the fall term.
He also was invited to attend a two-week orientation class on campus that July, but before accepting the offer, he and Davies traveled to Wisconsin in late April for an in-person tour of Nashotah House. Clark-Tosca said he made no secret of his sexuality and even mentioned his husband in his application materials, and during the two-day visit, despite experiencing some awkwardness, he was welcomed warmly by many on campus, including by Anderson, who has served as dean since 2017.
“He pulled me in his office, and he said, ‘Look, I can’t guarantee that everybody on campus here is going to like you. But if you ever face discrimination from anyone, you tell me immediately, because I won’t put up with that on this campus.'”
Clark-Tosca was increasingly aware of Nashotah House’s reputation in the church as a conservative enclave, though this only made him more committed to attending. “I felt really like God was calling me to be a good presence in that place, to show them that someone from the LGBT community could be Anglo-Catholic and be serious about their education,” he said.
Days later, Clark-Tosca was back in California and with his husband on a short getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary when he heard from Kristen Olver, the director of admissions at the time. “I feel horrible,” she said, according to Clark-Tosca’s account of their conversation. “There are some individuals who have found out that you’re gay and married to a man, and they have an issue with your admission.”
Then on May 17, in a scheduled call with Anderson, the dean broke the news that the decision by the Board of Directors was final. “He told me that they were threatening to let him go, to remove him from his position if he did not follow through with rescinding my admission to Nashotah House,” Clark-Tosca recalled.
He also said Anderson revealed another detail in that call: that the three board members who blocked his admission were from ACNA.
Seminary digs in, as ‘traumatic’ experience leaves mark
Clark-Tosca considered all options available to pressure the seminary into readmitting him. He wrote letters to Nashotah House board members. He wrote letters to members of Congress. He contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which declined to take his case. He filed the complaint with the Department of Education.
He also sought advice from Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor, who wrote a stern letter to Anderson in July 2021 protesting the seminary’s decision. In the letter, a copy of which Clark-Tosca provided to ENS, Taylor wrote of the harm the seminary had caused to Clark-Tosca, “a devoted lay minister seeking only to deepen his understanding of our faith and traditions.”
In addition to supporting Clark-Tosca, Taylor told Anderson, “I’ll do all I can to discourage our seminarians from attending Nashotah House. We’ll provide no scholarship to any who do.”
None of Clark-Tosca’s efforts budged Nashotah House, though Monk, the board chairman, indicated in a September 2021 letter to Clark-Tosca that the seminary’s leaders were concerned about a potential lawsuit. Clark-Tosca shared with ENS a copy of the letter, in which Monk sought to further explain why the acceptance had been rescinded, saying that Nashotah House “has long affirmed that, in sexual matters, celibacy is expected of all students except in the context of a marriage between one man and one woman.”
Monk concluded his letter by saying he would be happy to discuss the matter further, “but to understand the purpose of that discussion, I need to know whether you are planning to file a lawsuit against Nashotah House. Please advise of your intentions.”
Clark-Tosca considered pursuing a lawsuit but ultimately decided against it, because of the cost, the time and the uncertainty of victory. “I knew that I was a small fish in a big pond,” he said.
Anderson, though declining to answer questions for this story, spoke about the seminary’s policies earlier this year in a story published in January by the Church Times. That story highlighted Nashotah House’s refusal to admit married gay or lesbian students under what is known in federal law as a Title IX exemption.
“Our Title IX exemption does not interfere with our ability to welcome and support students who identify as LGBTQ,” Anderson told the Church Times. “Meanwhile, our ethos at Nashotah House commits us to providing pastoral care for all our students and supporting them in every possible way.”
Clark-Tosca, meanwhile, turned his focus to his second choice of seminaries, the Vancouver School of Theology. He enrolled in a Master of Arts degree program and has since shifted to a Master of Divinity program, after discerning a new call to the priesthood. While still employed full time, he is completing coursework part time as a long-distance student at the seminary. He finished his first year this spring and expects to earn his degree within a few years.
Clark-Tosca never learned which board members at Nashotah House called for his acceptance to be rescinded. In his interview with ENS, he expressed no bitterness toward Anderson or other campus leaders. He even wrote a letter to Anderson letting him know that he had found a new seminary and was doing well. He thanked Anderson for his support.
The experience, however, has left a profound mark on him. “It was horrible. It was traumatic,” he said. “I still shudder thinking about it for so many reasons, but mainly because I had told the world.” He recalled happily sharing the news with family and friends in spring 2021 that he had been accepted to Nashotah House.
“All of that was just a shot through the heart when they shut the door.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.