Widening the Circle

Bexley Seabury President Roger Ferlo and Academic Dean Therese DeLisio view an Irish translation of the Bible (1681).

A few weeks ago Dean Terry DeLisio and I had the privilege of visiting the Newberry Library in Chicago to view the Bexley Hall Rare Book Collection, which had just arrived from Columbus. Although I knew what the inventory looked like on paper, it was a moving experience to examine some of these extraordinary holdings in person: an edition of a work by Erasmus published in his lifetime, with a woodcut by Hans Holbein’s father gracing its opening page; a brilliantly hand-illuminated Muslim prayer book; hundreds and hundreds of mid-nineteenth-century American pamphlets and sermons published by small town presses throughout the Midwest; presentation copies of nineteenth-century tracts signed by Hannah More, the distinguished evangelical English poet and pamphleteer; a multi-volume travel diary in an exquisite hand, written by an early twentieth-century Bexley alumnus.

All these precious volumes had been in storage and inaccessible in Columbus for almost 20 years. They have now become part of one of the finest independent research institutions in the United States, to be permanently catalogued as “the Bexley Hall Collection—a gift of Bexley Seabury Seminary” as funds become available, and featured in an important exhibition on Religious Change that will open at the Newberry in the fall. (Bexley and Seabury alums know a lot about religious change!)

As our Board of Directors well understood in arranging this gift, making such resources as the Bexley Hall Collection available on a global scale is deeply appropriate for a unique institution like ours—a seminary “beyond walls” dedicated to widening the circle of theological scholarship and inter-religious understanding.

We are in good company. Since its founding in the late nineteenth century as an independent research library, the Newberry has had a policy of open public access—where the public high school junior writing a term paper on Native American history is as welcome as a seasoned university scholar researching her next ground-breaking monograph. Our own Bexley Seabury Board member, Canon Diane Porter, who grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, remembers with fondness a formative trip to the Newberry as a young girl, the reward for her first-prize participation in a summer reading club. I would like to think that Philander Chase, our irascible founding bishop and the initial collector of these volumes, would have been one of the first readers to show up at the Newberry, no doubt loudly taking credit for his foresight in creating this world-class collection.

Next time you are in Chicago, make a visit to the Newberry, and ask them to show you that Erasmus volume. Our friends there will be happy to welcome you to this new way-station of our seminary beyond walls.

Discovering Something Rich and Strange

As I write I am preparing to lead the pre-Lenten clergy retreat for the Diocese of Massachusetts. Their new bishop the Rt. Rev. Alan Gates, is a former Bexley Hall and Bexley Seabury board member, and a thoughtful and informed supporter of seminary education in a time of unsettling change — including change in his own theological neighborhood.

In the political and cultural turmoil of the last several weeks, I know I am not the only person who has found it hard to focus. So I am looking forward to this time in Massachusetts, if only because
the theme I have chosen for the retreat —Engaging the Scriptural Imagination— is intended to offer something of a respite from the dread and anxiety that has afflicted so many of us recently.

We will spend time with artists like Rembrandt and poets like Emily Dickinson, both of them better scriptural interpreters than most of us gathering in Ipswich. My hope is that an artist’s take on our sacred stories — at once critical and creative, impatient of pious cant and yet resplendent in beauty — will embolden us to approach our Lenten scriptures as if we were reading them for the first time, and discover in them something rich and strange.

The Massachusetts clergy don’t know this yet, but by the time I am done with them they will all have written a few lines of poetry based on the coming season’s lectionary, and will be asked to share their work with each other in an impromptu public reading. I love doing this poetry thing with preachers. What better way to take our minds off what’s happening in Washington, get off our high horses, and reconnect to the Source of Meaning that makes life not just bearable but even beautiful — a place to rest, and even rejoice, in what for many of my ordained colleagues (and for me) are such dark days.

Pray for Justice. Act for Justice.

Message from President Ferlo

I am writing this message on Martin Luther King Day, just four days before the next presidential inauguration. The juxtaposition of these two events underscores the deep racial and economic divisions that have haunted our national polity since its inception in the late eighteenth century. These divisions have seldom been more evident.

For perhaps the first time in my life as a Christian in America, I realize that if I really believe what I say when I repeat the promises of the baptismal covenant, my political and cultural passivity is no longer acceptable. In the current political climate, when a hero of the civil rights movement (and the great city he represents) can be so ignorantly pilloried by the most powerful man in the country, silence is no longer an option, any more for us than it was for Dr. King. If we really mean as Christians to uphold the dignity of every human being, and to make no peace with oppression, there is hard and risky work ahead.

Elsewhere in this newsletter, you will see an invitation to gather with your fellow alumni and friends of the seminary at our April 26 convocation, Bending Toward Justice, to be held at St. James Common in Chicago. My hope is that the work of that convocation will resonate with the prophetic witness of Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis. We are honored that the Rev. John Floberg, long-time priest at the Standing Rock reservation and a Bexley Hall alumnus, has agreed to speak to us about his work in organizing the clergy participation in the recent Standing Rock protest.

In a panel discussion, John will be joined by our keynote speaker, the Rev. Gayle Stewart-Fischer, a former police officer and now Episcopal priest, and founder of the Center for Faith in Justice in Washington, DC; and by Mr. Kenji Kuramitsu, an Episcopal seminarian at McCormick Seminary. Kenji is an eloquent writer and speaker on issues of civil rights and ethnic justice, and a member of the national board of the Japanese American Citizens’ League.

Please mark your calendars; tell your friends and colleagues; and urge them to attend on April 26 at St. James’ Common, 65 Huron Street, Chicago. The convocation begins at 2 p.m. and ends with a reception following Evensong at 5:30.

Pray for justice. Act for justice. In Christ’s name.

Standing Up

♦ November 22, 2016 ♦

Our Lady of Ferguson icon written by Mark Dukes, commissioned by Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Trinity Church Wall Street
“What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’  Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.”

—Junot Diaz on President Trump and Radical Hope in The New Yorker


Last Saturday, I had the privilege of offering the homily at the Bexley Seabury Eucharist, in the presence of the 15 or so seminary students and faculty assembled for a weekend liturgy class. I have preached many sermons in the past three decades, on many challenging scripture texts. But in the light of the events of the past few weeks, I found the two texts assigned for the day particularly problematic. In the first one (2 Corinthians 8:7–15), Paul urges the Corinthians to be generous in support of their fellow Christians in Jerusalem. “I am testing the generousness of your love,” he says, “looking for a fair balance between your present abundance and the needs of others.” The Gospel reading was even more troubling (Luke 6:35–38): “Love your enemies…do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Given the signs of the times, I now include these two passages in my growing collection of what Biblical scholars call, rather dispassionately, “hard sayings.” (more…)



♦ October 20, 2016 ♦

Illustration of raised hand with a message bubble in it's palm that reads "ENOUGH."

Everyone I speak to agrees on at least one thing: the political climate in the past several months has grown unusually toxic.

The coarsening of public language; the revelations of predatory sexual behavior; the continuing distortion of religious rhetoric; the hacking of private email accounts by a foreign power in an attempt to manipulate public opinion; the growing public mistrust of fact-based expertise and constitutional order, coupled with an even more troubling reliance on false claims and unsubstantiated rumor; the growing public tolerance, even embrace, of misogynistic and racist memes — all of this has no precedent in any of our lifetimes.

We are experiencing a 21st-century replay of the worst moments in the history of American public life, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to pro-slavery agitation to the Know-Nothing riots to the devastation of Jim Crow to the paranoia of the Red Scare. As we enter the final throes of this election cycle, pray for justice and mercy, and pray especially for those who seek the restoration of a morally acceptable level of civil discourse.

One of the joys for me of our move to Hyde Park is a closer connection with two Episcopal communities long part of this neighborhood — Brent House, the Episcopal chaplaincy of the University of Chicago, and St. Paul and the Redeemer Episcopal Church, where I now serve as priest associate. Peter Lane, our young and gifted rector, preached a powerful sermon this past Sunday based on the Lukan parable of Dives and Lazarus. Peter has graciously given me permission to share the text of that sermon with all of you. I will reflect on his words often as we approach Election Day, and suspect that, on reading them, you will do the same.

The Stench of the Apocalypse

♦ Sermon Given by Roger Ferlo July 24, 2016 ♦
St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
The 10th Sunday After Pentecost


Whoever it was that wrote the letter long ascribed to Paul, something had gone terribly wrong.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but fledgling Christians in that cosmopolitan city in the middle of present-day Turkey seemed to be captive to some kind of hyper-ascetic cult. Enamored of false philosophy, victims of empty deceit, traduced by the elemental spirits of the universe, dwelling on visions, obsessed with dietary rules, festival calendars, new moons, false Sabbaths, puffed up with what the writer calls human ways of thinking. Frankly, as a political candidate might put it, there was something going on.

We will never know exactly what it was. Within a few years of receiving this letter, the city of Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake, its Christian community completely dispersed.

Knowing what we know about Christian history, there are perhaps two ways of looking at this incident.

Pray for peace. Act for peace.

♦ June 13, 2016 ♦

A Letter from President Ferlo

Dear Friends,

Yesterday afternoon, I joined with hundreds of gay and straight Chicagoans at a silent vigil in Lakeview, a neighborhood known affectionately as “Boystown,” as we mourned for those killed in Orlando in that horrendous firestorm of bullets and prayed for the wounded. We heard addresses from several people, including two young Christian ministers, a Muslim educator, the new Superintendent of Police, several state and local politicians, a cousin of one of those murdered, and two Southside mothers whose children were shot and killed by stray bullets in what seems the endless gun violence that stains this city with innocent blood. A SWAT team stood warily to one side; I wish I could say their presence was a consolation. (more…)

Taking It to the Streets

♦ Sermon Given May 26, 2016 ♦

The Feast of Corpus Christi
The Church of the Advent, Boston

Pope Urban IV usually receives the credit for getting us here in church on a Thursday evening outside of Holy Week.

“Miraculous is the memorial … in which the sign is renewed and the wonderful things are transformed, in which is contained all delight, in which certainly we obtain support of life and salvation.” (more…)

Life in Common

Letter read by President Ferlo at 2016 Commencement at Trinity Lutheran Seminary

May 21, 2016

To the President, Board of Directors, Faculty, Staff, and Graduates of Trinity Lutheran Seminary:

Grace to you and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ!

On this, the final day of the 186th academic year of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and the 192nd academic year of Bexley Hall, now part of the Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation, we, the president, board, faculty, staff and students of Bexley Seabury give thanks to God for our 17 years of shared worship and ministry with you. Our time on this campus now comes to a close. (more…)