Episcopal Divinity School: A Pioneering Voice in Progressive Theological Education

By the Rev. Dr. Matthew P. Cadwell. The following is an excerpt from the full article in the Spring 2015 issue of EDS Now.

Episcopal Divinity School came into being on June 6, 1974. Building on the strengths of its predecessors—the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (est. 1857) and Episcopal Theological School (est. 1867)—EDS has offered the Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion, and diverse faith communities a unique voice in theological education: intentionally progressive with ever deepening commitments to social and ecclesial justice.

Following the merger, founding co-deans Ed Harris (ETS ’41) and Harvey Guthrie wrote:

The past year has not been easy for either of us, nor for the faculty and students in Philadelphia and Cambridge . . . But we believe that we are experiencing what is inevitable if the institutions and structures of the church respond responsibly to cultural and financial and sociological realities of the present . . .

The merger of ETS and PDS into EDS is neither the beginning of the kingdom of God nor one of the biggest things in the history of the church. Its significance fades before the real issues before the church today: racism and discrimination against women and social justice and national morality and spiritual hunger and human need of many kinds. The significance of the merger finally lies in the necessity to walk away from the structures of the past, filled with blessings as they were, into the future into which God calls us.1

EDS co-deansThe blessings of EDS’s predecessors were indeed many. Founded during an era of ecclesial expansion, PDS and ETS shared a similar spirit and hope. They even had something of a shared history: John Seely Stone, lauded 19th century preacher, was a founding member of the PDS faculty and subsequently was called as ETS’s first dean a decade later. Both schools had lay boards of trustees,2 embraced the liberal and comprehensive ethos within Anglicanism, and encouraged freedom of inquiry, risk-taking, and openness to new perspectives.

Unity and Justice in Service of the Gospel

Compelling justice issues raised by the civil rights and women’s movements and the Vietnam War led faith communities to consider how they might unite to effect positive change. Episcopal seminaries in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia participated in the founding of diverse ecumenical consortia in their respective cities, including cross-registration, library privileges, and joint faculty ventures. The strongest was the Boston Theological Institute, established in 1968. The simultaneous relocation of the Jesuits’ Weston College (later Weston Jesuit School of Theology) to ETS’s campus brought particular life and vibrancy to post-Vatican II ecumenism.

In a similar spirit, in 1971 the General Theological Seminary in New York, PDS, and ETS responded to the Board for Theological Education’s call for the consolidation of seminaries by establishing the Episcopal Consortium for Theological Education in the Northeast (ECTENE). It anticipated a common curriculum, faculty and student exchanges, a doctoral program, and potentially a merger. To initiate the new relationship ECTENE appointed adjunct faculty in the areas of urban mission and women in the church, among them Suzanne R. Hiatt, ETS ’64.

A three-way merger proved impossible as General’s constitution did not allow it to leave New York, while the others prized the unique relationship that ETS enjoyed with Harvard University, as well as newer relationships with Weston College and the BTI. Although General could not join, the positive experience in ECTENE led the trustees and faculty of PDS and ETS to envision a bold new future, voting for merger on ETS’s campus in the summer of 1974.

Upholding principles of fairness and mutuality, both tenured faculties were maintained, resulting in a faculty of 26 for 150 to 180 students in the earliest years. Although impressive in scope, the large faculty led to considerable financial strain after PDS’s campus was sold to the University of Pennsylvania for only $607,000, well below the market value of $2.8 million. Faculty retirements and the sale of student family housing on Kirkland Street in Cambridge helped ease financial strain, but costs and declining enrollment proved challenging in the long term.EDS campus

Yet, the School made a commitment—following threat of resignation by Dean Guthrie in 1974—to add an ordained Anglican woman to the faculty. To that point women had only been ordained as deacons. But following the “irregular” Philadelphia ordinations that July there were priests as well, prompting discernment of how fully EDS would be able to embrace the call to justice.

In 1975 EDS appointed two of the Philadelphia priests to a single position—Suzanne Hiatt, organizer of the ordinations and adjunct faculty through ECTENE, and Carter Heyward, a doctoral candidate in New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Four of 26 faculty members voted in opposition. Notably, Hiatt and Heyward were accorded the same rights as other faculty priests in presiding at the Eucharist and administering sacraments.

The appointment solidified EDS’s progressive voice. But it angered some constituencies already uncertain about the merger. Indeed, some alumni/ae felt that their beloved seminaries had died in the birth of the new. While this sense of loss was to be expected, unique aspects of each school were maintained. Perhaps most significant, EDS’s pedagogy followed an innovative model developed in Philadelphia leading to several educational hallmarks: curriculum and program conferences, regular student and faculty interaction, and student responsibility for defining and meeting educational goals. EDS was a new institution with DNA inherited from both parents.

Walking into the Future

In reflecting on EDS’s 40 years we find a rich inheritance from its parent schools as it strives for racial, gender, and sexual justice and works for reconciliation among God’s people today. Embracing emerging theologies, changing demographics, and new technologies, EDS has sought to maintain its clear and progressive voice, while securing a more elusive financial stability. Often it has faced difficult choices, such as the decision to leave behind the beloved Philadelphia campus, the more recent sale of a portion of the Brattle Street campus, and the development of online programs. But always EDS has pursued its mission with passion and commitment to discerning God’s call in service of an inclusive, compassionate, and liberating gospel.

As the School considers the challenges and opportunities of theological education in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond, the letter by Deans Harris and Guthrie has particular resonance and relevance. Racism, sexism, and poverty, as well as homophobia, xenophobia, social stratification, militarism, and ecological destruction still confront us. These enduring issues signal the need for the transformational theological education that Episcopal Divinity School offers. As it confronts them and more, EDS continues its bold and pioneering walk into the future into which God calls us.

About the Author

The Rev. Dr. Matthew P. Cadwell ’99 is rector of Emmanuel Church in Wakefield, MA; lecturer in theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto; and co-president of EDS’s Alumni/ae Executive Committee. He previously wrote A History of Episcopal Divinity School: In Celebration of its Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (2000).

Photos from top to bottom

1) June 1974 issue of the Episcopal Theological School Bulletin featuring Harvey H. Guthrie and Edward G. Harris, co-deans of the newly-formed EDS, on the cover (Episcopal Divinity School Archives).

2) Episcopal Divinity School campus, 2012.


1. Harvey Guthrie and Edward Harris, “EDS: A Progress Report,” Episcopal Theological School Bulletin ( June 1974). Harris, previously PDS dean, served as co-dean until 1976. Following his retirement, Guthrie, previously ETS dean, was solo dean through 1984–1985

2. ETS’s board of trustees was entirely lay. At its founding, PDS’s board of trustees was also lay, save the bishop of Pennsylvania who was its chairman. PDS also had a board of overseers, comprised of bishops and other clergy. Eventually PDS’s two boards were merged and clergy and lay served together. This model was brought to EDS as well.