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Dean Defends Seminary’s Lease Deal with Music School

If many Episcopalians are concerned about a proposed long-term lease between General Theological Seminary and a startup known as the School of Sacred Music, it was not evident in a Zoom discussion on April 16.

The Very Rev. Dr. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Seminary and president of General Seminary, hosted the first of three Zoom sessions for alumni and friends of Virginia Seminary, but it was open to other interested parties.

Seven bishops in greater New York City have opposed a tentative plan to lease part of General’s underused New York City campus to the music school, which offers a nine-month apprenticeship for future professional church musicians across denominational lines.

In a low-key, conversational session with 15 participants, Markham revealed that under a proposed 99-year lease, the music school would cover all of $32 million in deferred maintenance on General’s campus, which dates to 1817.

Virginia Theological Seminary, which controls both seminaries, has been in negotiations with the music school for a variety of potential lease arrangements, said Nicky Burridge, vice president for communications. The music school already rents short-term space on the historic Manhattan campus, and its students perform Choral Vespers on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in General’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

On May 22, the bishops of the Dioceses of New York and Long Island sent a letter to their clergy opposing a lease. “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 wrote. The letter was signed by Bishop of New York Matthew Heyd, Bishop of Long Island Lawrence Provenzano, and their suffragan and assisting bishops.

Efforts to reach Heyd and Provenzano were unsuccessful. Nick Richardson, communications director for the Diocese of New York, said the diocese would have no comment beyond the written statement.

The New York Daily News first reported the bishops’ opposition to the proposed lease. Quoting “multiple sources,” the Daily News reported that the music school is supported by Colin Moran, a New York hedge fund manager who has a deep interest in promoting excellence in choral music.

Morgan leads the board of directors of First Things, a well-known general interest religion journal founded in 1990 by the late Richard John Neuhaus. Throughout its history, First Things has published a wide variety of theological reflection, book reviews, and other commentary, including by Episcopalians and other Anglicans. It affirms traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and related issues such as abortion.

Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders and parishes have a long-term commitment to maintaining dialogue and ministry with each other.

Moran and School of Sacred Music officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Burridge said the school has said “over and over again that they’re going to be inclusive,” adding that the New York City choral music scene is highly diverse.

Markham reiterated in the Zoom session that the school has committed itself to LGBT inclusion for faculty, students, and staff.

“I am not worried at all” about the school’s commitment to inclusion, he said, adding that both General and Virginia seminaries consider such inclusion non-negotiable.

Markham mentioned that his initial connection to the School of Sacred Music came through Dr. Christopher Wells, formerly executive director of the Living Church Foundation and publisher of The Living Church. Wells is now director of unity, faith and order for the Anglican Communion Office. He confirmed that he referred Dean Markham through email in the spring of 2023 to “to an old friend of mine, who was a graduate student in theology at Notre Dame.” He then followed up with email to Markham in the summer.

“I am saddened to hear of the concerns raised about all of this, and hope that the New York bishops and VTS/GTS can come to an amicable agreement, mindful of the big tent not only of the Christian Church but of the Anglican Communion, and I hope of the Episcopal Church. Single-issue litmus tests for inter-Christian association and cooperation should be avoided by churches and their leaders, even as they rightly strive to articulate their no-doubt differing doctrines. The communion of the baptized is the most basic, visible assembly of the faithful and needs devoutly to be defended and upheld. Out of our friendships within that communion, interesting and hard conversations can take place. I would think this strikes especially to the heart of the vocation of seminaries and divinity schools, which for Anglicans, like all mainline Christians, have evinced an ecumenical character since at least the 1960s. We really are better together.”

Markham presented several slides during the Zoom session, including a screen shot of a post by the Rev. Dr. April Stace, General’s assistant professor of practical theology and director of contextual ministry, and a harpist.

“This lease agreement would allow us to continue hosting the intensive classes on the Close, and would ensure that the chapel is being used regularly (vespers, etc.),” Stace wrote. It was VERY hard to find a partner who had enough money to do all the renovation necessary on the campus, and this is a huge blessing for us. IF the need for straight white men to appear as ‘allies’ doesn’t mess it up.”

General is the oldest Episcopal seminary in America. Virginia Seminary is the second-oldest and the most affluent, and it essentially acquired General in 2022 after it became clear that a standalone GTS was financially unsustainable.

The five-acre General campus in the Chelsea section is extremely valuable, but the value is not liquid. The red-brick buildings have deferred maintenance needs that the school estimated at more than $32 million in November 2023. For 2023, General had operating expenses of $7.8 million, against income of $4.3 million.

General discontinued its traditional three-year residential model at the end of the 2023 school year in favor of a hybrid program that is primarily online, with intensive short-term residential visits. “The hybrid M.Div. program has been hugely successful,” Burridge said, with 34 seminarians now working toward a master’s of divinity, the only degree still being offered at GTS. She said the current M.Div. class is the largest in the past decade, and some seminarians have said the hybrid program is the only way they could pursue their call to ministry.

Despite the potential value of the prime Manhattan real estate, Virginia Seminary has consistently said it has no intention of selling the Close. Plans are to retain the use of Dodge Hall, the Keller Library, and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd “in perpetuity,” the November announcement said.

In addition to Heyd and Provenzano, the letter of opposition was signed by Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin and Bishop Assistant Mary Glasspool of the Diocese of New York, and Long Island assisting bishops Geralyn Wolf, Daniel Allotey, and R. William Franklin.

Markham said in the Zoom session that he would welcome any alternative arrangement the bishops wish to present, and that he’s aware of earlier discussions by General’s leaders to sell campus buildings as commercial real estate. But, he said, selling this Oxford-style campus in the middle of New York City would break his heart.

The dioceses of New York and Long Island are financial supporters of The Living Church.

This story has been corrected to reflect the time of Christopher Wells referring Dean Markham to his friend.

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