Has the Episcopal Church jumped the shark?

Gutter newspaper and television has made some hay about Jim McGreevey — former New Jersey governor and “gay American” — being received into the Episcopal Church, being accepted to study at General Theological Seminary and pursuing holy orders. It’s been a busy week for him: good luck. I won’t wonder what happened if he’s not accepted into candidacy. Indeed, I’ll be suspicious if he is. Seminary gets more than its share of people looking for some new stability and direction in life. Some get it, others don’t. (Seminaries and denominations also get people with pull and money who get their way.)

I recall meeting a student at seminary orientation, visiting him in his apartment in the days before class started, and never seeing him again. Seems he holed himself up with supplies from the local liquor store and made a Lost Weekend into a Lost Week. Hospitalized for rehab after students from his denomination went to check on him, he then withdrew from school.

But, as you see from the title of this post, I have other thoughts, too. Has the Episcopal Church become “that church” — the role once filled by the Unitarian Universalists? Sure we’re funky and funny, and in a number of different ways. Some of that is OK, but if that’s all you are you start living into it and can become nothing else. Then that’s how the rest of the world sees you and you begin to spiral into your own weird world. The UUA seems to be tacking a middle course right now; it certainly seems saner as a whole than a few years ago, but I wonder if the political antics of the Bush administration hasn’t been the cause of the sobering. Or perhaps the retirement of the generation of those groovy ministers, some of whom had professional habits that make my hair curl.

It’s the Episcopal Church’s turn to look like Jerry Springer’s special guests. Fly-ins from Nigeria. American bishops with the ecclesiastic version of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The Archbish of Canterbury looking more spectral than solid. Good luck to them, too.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I have to admit I was stunned when I first heard the news.

    Knowing what I know of both the Episcopal discernment system (which is very little, but more than many non-Episcopal ordinands) and of seminary admissions procedures (heaven knows I’ve read enough admissions websites), I’m shocked that this transpired.

    The Graduate Theological Seminary admissions website actually says, Normally applicants to the M.Div. program must hold the degree of Bachelor of Arts or its equivalent. For students whose Master of Divinity degree is intended as preparation for ordination, ecclesiastical endorsement is required. In the Episcopal Church, this means endorsement by the student’s bishop; for persons in other churches, it means endorsement by the comparable church authority. So did this man’s bishop actually endorse him for seminary study? The discernment process in DC is that you have to be a member of a parish for at least a year (possibly two?) before you can even enter discernment. And yet this man has been received into the Episcopal Church and been accepted into seminary all within the same month. I’ve read the news articles where GTS defends its decision and system, but it sounds like so much spin to me.

  2. It’s a pop-culture saying that means something or someone has moved into a state of irrevocable decline after a desperate or ill-conceived act. “Jumping the shark” originally referred to television shows and comes from an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz water-skied over sharks. (Wikipedia article)

  3. Mrs Philocrites and I were flummoxed by two aspects of the McGreevey story: Why on earth did St Bart’s approve a discernment committee for someone so new to the church? (Or so scandal-plagued!) Here in Massachusetts, it’s typical for a congregation to ask a person to be an active member of a parish for at least a year before setting up a discernment committee — and even then, a major consideration would seem to be whether a person is living a scandalous life. McGreevey really hasn’t established that yet. I have my doubts about the judgment of the priest who jumpstarted all this.

    But the second question is why General admitted him to the MDiv program. The school has been known to ask for a bishop’s approval before admitting someone into its MDiv program, yet several reputable news sources have confirmed that General has indeed accepted him for the MDiv. Oddly, the bishop says he had not been made aware of McGreevey’s entry into the discernment process. Again, St Bart’s is letting him go way too fast. (The liberalism of pity, perhaps? McGreevey is known for playing the system. How naive can you be?)

    But has the Episcopal Church “jumped the shark” more than the UUA? Or even remotely as successfully? Maybe. My experience, though, is that the Episcopalians are still carrying on a real conversation with parts of the culture that we UUs abandoned decades ago, and in that sense I think their vitality is richer or at least more widely distributed. I think they have stumbled into a marketing problem, but they may also still have much more to sell.

  4. Exciting update on the James McGreevey front! It doesn’t exonerate the school or his sponsoring parish, but it is a step back from the initial absurdity of the story: “James McGreevey, after more careful study of the guidelines for ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, has decided to enter GTS as a full-time non-degree student rather than as student in the Seminary’s Master of Divinity program. His request for this change has been accepted by Dean Ewing. Having previously met General’s admissions requirements, including evaluations by a committee composed of faculty members, several students and the Director of Admissions, Mr. McGreevey will begin classes in September.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.