A priest of the Episcopal Church and canonically resident in the Diocese of Easton, Pennsylvania, Gregory Straub is a graduate of Dickinson College, Philadelphia Divinity School (PDS), and Drew University. In January 2013, he retired as Executive Officer of the General Convention and resigned as Secretary of the General Convention. In October 2012, Gregory was award the inaugural House of Deputies Medal, which was created to honor clergy and laypeople who have given distinguished service to the House of Deputies and the Episcopal Church. He was one of three recipients of Honorary Degrees from Episcopal Divinity School in May 2013. We asked him a few questions about his time at PDS, EDS, and his reflections on the Episcopal Church.
We’re celebrating Philadelphia Divinity School in this issue of EDS Now as we approach 2014, the 40th anniversary of the school’s merger with ETS. How would you describe your time at PDS?
It was a time of transition. The Board for Theological Education, under Bishop Stephen Bayne, had recommended consolidation of the church’s seminaries and churchwide financial support for the remaining schools. Even as I applied to seminaries, I was uncertain which of them would survive independently or, if merged, where they would be located. Philadelphia Divinity School was facing reaccreditation and was embarking—my class was the first—on a new curriculum that organized course work, field work, private study, and other educational resources in support of projects. This curriculum survived in the curriculum of Episcopal Divinity School. So, my time was one of experimentation, which matched the mood of secular education at the time.
How did PDS prepare you for your vocation?
Very well, and not at all. PDS instilled a loyalty to the institutional church while encouraging a free exchange of ideas. The faculty prized clear thinking and did not enforce uniformity of opinion; it allowed for a wide variety of expression in theology, liturgy, and politics. Mine was the first class at PDS to take General Ordination Examinations, and I passed all seven areas, which indicates how very, very well I was prepared academically. I was not prepared, however, for administering a parish, preaching a sermon, counseling parishioners, or, indeed, any of the tasks that took up my most recent post as Executive Officer of the General Convention. These skills were picked up along the way as a curate (I had an excellent mentor in my first cure), rector, and visitor and deputy to General Convention.
You have served on the board of EDS. Does EDS have qualities that remind you of PDS?
The faculty at PDS and EDS were/are excellent, which comes as no surprise, as the PDS faculty later became faculty at EDS. PDS was a tolerant environment intellectually and culturally, as is EDS. As a senior in seminary, I served as student representative on the board of PDS, and the mix of lay and ordained members on the board carried over into the merged seminary. I’ve never understood seminaries that have boards that do not include representatives of all the church’s orders of ministries, but many seminary boards used to be lay only.
Graduates of EDS are given a PDS cross at the time of their graduation to remind them of our connection to Philadelphia. Is there something you learned at PDS that you hope EDS students will know when they graduate?
I am very pleased with the moving of the Philadelphia cross from Sherrill Library to St. John’s Chapel, where it can serve as a focus for worship as it did in St. Andrew’s Chapel at PDS, or maybe an object for contemplation to which a mind can wander when not inspired by worship. For me the Philadelphia cross represents the sacrifices made by generations of donors in the Philadelphia area for the establishment and maintenance of PDS. Part of their gift now endows EDS. I hope students appreciate the people who helped to make their education possible.
You have been a visitor, an alternate, a deputy, and the secretary of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. What is one of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed through the years?
Each of the boards on which I have sat—parish vestries, diocesan councils, seminary boards, Executive Council and General Convention—has considered at least one issue at the last meeting I attended that was on the agenda at the first. Some things just don’t go away. The biggest change in General Convention was going from an all-male assembly to one that is half female in the House of Deputies. (The House of Bishops has a way to go to achieve parity.) Women have gone from being absent to positions of leadership, which just proves how much talent the Episcopal Church deprived itself of for its first two centuries! While not as visually dramatic, increased participation by all underrepresented groups has improved the church’s governance.
Is there a misconception about General Convention that you would like to clear up?
Yes. General Convention is not expensive, and it is worth what we spend on it. When you think that the church is a multi-billion-dollar operation when you add up all its parts, spending $3.5 million every three years is not too much to spend on church governance. And if we didn’t have General Convention, who would be making the church’s decisions, and in what back room, and who wouldn’t be present?
Your style certainly made an impression on this first-time visitor to the General Convention in Indianapolis. Where did you find so many different and eye-catching suit jackets?
I started to wear bright jackets when I was Assistant Secretary for Voting of the House of Deputies to be recognizable off the floor if deputies had questions about voting. Some jackets are just what one wears to summer cocktail parties in the South. One particularly bright jacket I found in a Polo outlet in Hong Kong, marked down 90%. Another, Gay Jennings [President of the House of Deputies] found in a shop in Delray Beach, Florida.
The theme of this issue is storytelling. Is there a particular story that you would like to share about those you have met along your path?
My life has been enriched by many lay and ordained people I’ve known throughout my ministry. There are many stories I could tell, but there is no space left, and I could never choose just one of them to tell. When our paths cross again, as in our church they are bound to do, ask me to tell some of those stories.
An excerpt of this interview first appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of EDS Now.