A prominent progressive seminary has cut ties to a liberal Episcopal Church institution, leaving the latter formless and devoid of campus, faculty, and accreditation.

In a Friday afternoon news dump, New York City’s Union Theological Seminary announced discontinuation of its formal affiliation with Episcopal Divinity School (EDS). The latter was an independent seminary training students for ministry within the Episcopal Church until financial shortfalls forced the sale of its Massachusetts campus, faculty layoffs, and a functional affiliation with Union in 2017 that lasted a total of five years.

Readers will recall Union for its widely mocked 2019 chapel service during which participants confessed to plants. Union is among the most theologically progressive U.S. seminaries, known for political activism and various liberation theology expressions tied to identity. Originally established by Presbyterians, the independent seminary is officially non-denominational.

Episcopal Divinity School affiliated with Union as an Anglican studies program. Union also educates Unitarian Universalists and has Muslim faculty, among other religious traditions.

The move is part of a wider series of changes within Mainline Protestant seminaries forced to scale back programs, consolidate or shutter altogether. Other Episcopal Church seminaries including General Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific have announced the conclusion of residential programs in favor of hybrid remote learning.

Of the 10 Episcopal Church seminaries active at the time of the 2017 Union-EDS affiliation agreement, only four continue to offer residential programs: Virginia Theological Seminary of Alexandria, Virginia, Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin and Sewanee in Tennessee. A fifth seminary, Trinity School for Ministry of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, quietly concluded its relationship with the Episcopal Church in 2021 and continues as an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition.

Episcopal Divinity School is not a degree-granting institution and relied upon Union for its Master of Divinity and Master of Sacred Theology program. A December 2022 newsletter from Dean Kelly Brown Douglas listed a total cohort of 21 students.

Anglican Studies will still be offered at Union – independent of EDS. While the announcement characterizes the change as an “amicable agreement,” it appears that Union sees little loss in the conclusion of the relationship.

“Union is confident that this new direction for both institutions will have no effect on the academic progress of its students, who as always, are Union’s first priority,” the announcement read.

“We look forward to continuing to offer current and future students the ability to pursue Anglican studies at Union Theological Seminary and to continue to build on the relationship we have with the Episcopal Church,” Union Theological Seminary President Serene Jones stated in the March 31 announcement.

Douglas, a past canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral, appears to be headed out the door in the near future. The announcement states that she will “lead EDS as Interim President until a long-term leadership structure is in place.” Her academic work focuses on womanist theology, sexuality and the black church.

“EDS’ mission of dismantling racism and working for social justice has taken on greater urgency as we prepare to meet broader demand for Episcopal theological education,” said Douglas, identifying a “pressing need to continue supporting rigorous theological education, connecting with the global Anglican communion, and responding to the demand that the Episcopal Church expand its role in matters of racial and social justice.”

It is unclear how many (if any) seminarians EDS educates from the broader worldwide Anglican Communion. Without accreditation or an ability to grant degrees, the institution appears relegated to advocacy and loosely defined “continuing education.”

EDS appears to have existed in recent years only to espouse and promote heterodox views on Christian morals and ethics. 

Douglas claimed that religious liberty is being “weaponized” by an “Evangelical, Christian nationalist” minority, hosted speakers promoting abortion and working against capitalism, instead of promoting evangelism.

Readers may be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which the main antagonist, Sauron, is defeated:

“And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

EDS appears to at last be blown away, not in calamity, but a dismissive whimper.