One of my alma maters, Andover-Newton Theological School, is in crisis even as it is preparing to inaugurate the Rev. Martin Copenhaver as its president tomorrow, October 5, 2014.
The community learned this past week through a letter from Martin Copenhaver and one from the Board of Trustees (both arrived together) that Mr. Copenhaver had an affair, that he repents of his mistakes and the pain he has caused his family and wider community, and hopes the community will forgive him. The Board of Trustees expresses its support of the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver and desires to move forward “in grace,” choosing, as I read the letter, to use this occasion of repentance and forgiveness as a model for how healthy Christian communities behave.
I, and many other Andover-Newton graduates and students, are shocked and dismayed. We do not agree with the board’s decision, although there is no general consensus about what action would be best.
I am interested in public theology, social media, sexual ethics and clergy image and personae, all of which at play in this situation. Aside from my intellectual interest in this story, I have emotional loyalty to Andover-Newton Theological School, having earned my Doctor of Ministry degree there in 2011 and writing my doctoral dissertation on covenant and covenanting. And I am spiritually loyal to the body of Christ and the “beloved community” which includes non-Christian and non-Theistic Unitarian Universalists who are preparing for the ministry at Andover-Newton.
So I will say a word about all of these subjects in the interest of being helpful to the larger conversation, and as a way of offering a bit of pastoral ministry to those who are currently embroiled in the topic behind the semi-closed doors of Facebook and e-mail. There is no shame in being an institution dealing with human failing. Those of us who work in the church do it all day long and ourselves fail all day long. So I start from a theology of grace and a personal commitment to humor and intentional lightness of being: This has happened before. We are not players in a unique tragedy here. This is common human messiness.
I am first and foremost personally concerned about covenantal relationships –marriage being the most important one in this situation. It concerns me that my alma mater’s president should have violated the covenant of marriage for a long period of time, and that he and the board of trustees ask our forgiveness for that violation.
I assume that the president of a Christian seminary, unless he explicitly states otherwise, upholds the covenant of marriage according to the definition of two people who are faithful to each other unto death. Many couples have negotiated different terms to their marriage, but it is clear from Martin Copenhaver’s letter to the community that he and his wife did not do so, nor are they polyamorous. If they were, it would certainly be within their rights to allude to that and ask that the community respect their privacy. Non-monogamy within marriage is one commonly negotiated between spouses. I do not object to non-monogamous married people serving in leadership roles in the Church. As a never married feminist, however, I do question the privileging of marriage as a widely-regarded marker of maturity. I have seen the preference given to married ministers in the search process, for instance, and have had my own maturity or worthiness questioned because I am not married.
I am one of fourteen offspring of my father and his three brothers, and the only one who never married. The other thirteen have all been divorced. All of them. Marriage is not a natural talent in my extended family. I deeply respect those who do it well, and cheer on those who attempt it at all. It is a most demanding spiritual practice.
For me, knowledge of the president elect’s violation of his marriage covenant is a revelation of distressing facts about his character and religious integrity. How do I, or the wider community, forgive a revelation? This confuses me, and feels like a misdirection of my attention, which I would like to keep on whether or not I can trust Copenhaver as an individual of good character.
Because he has served on the Board of Trustees and been involved with the school for a long time, we have actual information about the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver’s character. People on the ANTS board know him. Ostensibly, they admire and respect him. I would rather have had the board write to the wider community about their firsthand knowledge of Martin Copenhaver’s good character than preaching to us about grace and forgiveness, which are not as germane to Copenhaver’s ability to do the job as is his reliability and integrity. The letter reads to me like a revival meeting, with tired, sweat-soaked preachers trying desperately to evoke the power of the Holy Spirit among a dazed and silent people.
The Holy Spirit most certainly is at work here. She is at work in truth-telling and blowing fresh air through harmful secrets. To force the Holy Spirit of forgiveness through a bellows and into community when it has just been knocked over by truth is inauthentic at best and manipulative at worst. But I forgive the Board of Trustees, as I have the compassion and experience enough to know how exhausting their work these past weeks must have been.
The central role of the covenant in Western religious thought is that God chooses us to be God’s people. In the covenantal theology of the Congregational Way (of which both the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver and I are descendants; he as an ordained United Church of Christ minister and I as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister), God gathers congregations together so that they may “walk in His ways as are known and shall be made known” to those individuals, who have been made a “people” by entering into covenant with each other and their God.
A seminary is not a church, and there are ecclesiastical questions about what kind of ministry a seminary president really has. It is not exactly pastoral, priestly or prophetic — the three traditional roles of the parish minister — and no one in the community has said if the Rev. Martin Copenhaver is under review for ministerial fitness by the ecclesiastical body to which he is accountable as a UCC minister. (A 2011 case that seems to provide a precedent is reported here). I think it would have been wise for the Board of Trustees to wait and postpone Copenhaver’s inauguration until those questions had been answered and any ministerial review conducted and concluded. This is practical information that the community deserves to know before being counseled to forgive.
It matters to many of us in the community that this information came to light after a third party threatened to make the information public. It matters to many of us that the affair went on for four years, and that it ended so recently. It matters to many of us that rather than resign, the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver offered to resign and therefore left the decision in the hands of a volunteer board who was probably very tired, very inclined to want to be able to trust him, and that is mostly not clergy. Clergy have a particular stake in this decision because it is we who suffer most the public’s scorn when we behave in ways that validate their sense that religion is a special haven for hypocrites.
It feels so good to be able to forgive. It is so Christian to forgive. But as I write this, on the Sabbath eve of Yom Kippur, I am reminded of the differences in Jewish and Christian teachings on forgiveness. In Judaism, you cannot forgive someone for something that was not done to you.
I cannot forgive Martin Copenhaver because it isn’t my place to forgive him. I am not married to Martin Copenhaver and cannot forgive him for committing adultery. That open question lies between him, his wife, and the person from whom he accepted love, romantic energy, comfort, emotional support whose contributions to his life can never be honored in public. Again, as a never-married feminist, I take this moral failure perhaps more seriously than any other. I have been propositioned many times by married men (including clergy) and am very well-acquainted with entitlement too many married feel to female attention, comfort and support. I have always been vocal about my own resentment of such emotional selfishness and physical greed.
It has been made clear that the long term relationship the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver had while married was not with a parishioner or intern under his pastoral care, and therefore the relationship does not fall into the category known as sexual misconduct. For some, this is reassuring. For me, it says a lot about our low expectations of religious leaders that we should find it occasion to breathe a sigh of relief that our ministers are having kosher extra-marital affairs. Sad commentary.
From the moment I heard the news, my first thought was not about sex but about lies. How many lies does a person have to tell to his family, his spouse, his staff, his congregation in order to conduct a long term extra-marital affair? Too many to count. To live in such deceit requires impressive powers of compartmentalization, and I would wish for Martin Copenhaver a period of recovery from such a long, bad internal practice. I believe that time away from important leadership roles are necessary in such recovery, and I am troubled by the Board of Trustees’ lack of recognition of that fact.
We talk of clergy burn-out all the time in the ministry. For some, clergy burn-out looks like depression and isolation. For some, it feels like a desert. For some, it takes the form of alcohol abuse or illegal drug addiction. For some, a heart attack sounds the alarm. For some, it looks like an escape from covenantal obligations in a romantic relationship. In rushing forward with the Inauguration, I feel that the Board of Trustees is forcing a dangerously exhausted star back onto the stage. “Get out there and dance!” This does not look like grace. This looks like enabling and exploitation of a career-driven pastor who has very recently driven his car off the road and into high weeds, and requires time and privacy to get it back on the road.
Like almost every other seminary in the nation, Andover-Newton desperately needs funds. The Rev. Martin Copenhaver’s most recent tenure — and a long and very successful one — was as Senior Pastor at a very large and very wealthy congregation in Wellesley Village, Massachusetts. He is a talented fundraiser.
Many have suggested that the options for Mr. Copenhaver’s future with Andover-Newton are either judgment or forgiveness. This is a false and distracting dualism, and I am embarrassed by the simplicity of the arguments of those who claim that asking for Copenhaver’s resignation is non-Christian and “judgmental.” They speak of casting first stones and quote Jesus.
In the gospel passage during which Jesus admonishes an angry mob that they should only throw rocks at the woman caught in adultery if they themselves are without sin, he was taking the side of a powerless woman who had no other advocates present and was about to be executed. The Rev. Mr. Martin Copenhaver is no less a vulnerable child of God than that woman caught in adultery, but he is not at all without power or without advocates. He is a gifted and well-loved professional who has a long and esteemed ministry among people who know his good works as well as his fallible human aspect. If he takes time away from leadership in order to better attend to the strengthening of his faith, his marriage, his spirit, his joy and happiness, that should not be regarded as a punishment or failure by any community except one that regards any career path but a strictly vertical one as a failure.
There are many secular ideas and anxieties about job security and career paths being woven into the community’s reflection on forgiveness and reconciliation. This trend can be seen most clearly in those who conflate forgiveness of Rev. Copenhaver with his right to remain in the job of Andover-Newton president. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness does not guarantee any worldly honors. Those who are reconciled with the covenanted community may worship within it and receive Communion. I personally welcome and embrace Martin as my brother in community even as I question his fitness to represent a seminary I want to be able to unequivocally and unashamedly speak well of and support as an alumnus and internship supervisor.
In our Congregational tradition, ministers are called by a vote of the congregation. The church’s by-laws specify by what percentage of a “yay” vote a congregation may extend the call to the new minister. Again, a seminary is not a church, but no minister who wants to serve well would accept a call from a divided church, even if they technically have the percentage of votes to get the job. Andover-Newton is a divided church right now.
It is not judgmental or un-Christian to resist the urge to move immediately from knowledge of someone’s long deceit to warm “forgiveness” so that one’s seminary president can be inaugurated as the official head of the institution. In the Congregational Way, forgiveness of an individual who has sinned began with a confession before the congregation, but did not conclude there. It is possible to forgive someone but still not feel that they are the best possible person to represent one’s institution in the top leadership role.
Finally, I am interested in this moment as an analyzer of clergy image. I have seen Martin Copenhaver preach and lead worship, and he fulfills every physical attribute that most New Englander’s have in their mental image of Trustworthy Pastor. I am proud of Andover-Newton Theological School’s commitment to studying and teaching anti-racist/anti-oppression theologies of justice, and think it legitimate in this situation to examine the ways most members of the community have been socialized to respect the power and authority of able-bodied, white, heterosexual, married men in the Church. We are all responsible for understanding unconscious needs and scripts that are being activated here. Andover-Newton has a large international student body for whom these unconscious associations are not in play. I crave their perspective but have not had a chance to hear it.
No one has had sufficient time to hear anything. That is how shock works in a system. I will not be attending tomorrow’s Inauguration out of respect for the community’s shock, anger and legitimate unanswered questions, out of respect for the ministerial fitness review process that I believe is warranted here, and as a protest against what I feel was a premature and immature plea for forgiveness on behalf of a fairly sequestered body of busy volunteer leaders that is responsible for the fiscal well-being of the seminary. I do not blame the board for its decision; I simply think it was the wrong one. They have made their decision, and communicated it to the wider community. Now it is time for us to respond, and I hope we will.
God be with us all, and move in our community as holy wisdom.
[Note: All of the details I have shared here have been confirmed by current students at Andover-Newton Theological School although they were not all included in the letters from the Rev. Copenhaver and the Board. All of the points I make in this post are distillations of points I made in a community conversation in the virtual Town Hall of Facebook the day the letters came in the mail to most of the community. I was contacted privately by a number of alumnae who knew I had this blog and asked me to publish my remarks for easier reading and sharing, and I obliged them. – VW, 10/6/14]