Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin

October 8, 2021
Week of Pentecost 19

Dear ULS Community:

This week, though busy, was more “normal” in that I didn’t have to go anywhere special or do any travel beyond going to campus. That was nice, and it gives me a chance to settle in in my Philadelphia office a little more fully; it is hard to do the unpacking of books and organizing of files when so much else is going on around me. But being able to be there in person is a real delight; seeing colleagues down the hall, walking to chapel, checking things in the library—these simple joys are signs that in spite of the pandemic, we are slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy.

Last weekend I visited Salem Lutheran Church in Catonsville, MD, where I preached at both Sunday services; this weekend I am at Atonement Lutheran Church in Wyomissing, PA—both congregations are or have been served by alumni pastors, and both have been very generous to ULS in the past and continue to be today. A very important part of my work as president is to be the seminary’s main public ambassador; I’m not alone in this, as the whole Advancement staff helps, as do faculty and even students when they represent ULS by their off-campus appearances in congregations, but I am the chief “friend-raiser” for the seminary, and I really enjoy that work. I had forgotten, though, how much effort it is to work a full week (including these Reflections, a little late today) and then prepare also to preach on Sunday. But I’m getting back into the pre-pandemic busy rhythm of life.

The following weekend is—of course—the presidential inauguration, and I am taking some extra time this coming week to prepare for that. I will be giving an inaugural lecture on Friday afternoon, followed by a praise worship service sponsored by the Urban Theological Institute, after which we will have a banquet in Brossman. We’ve had good RSVP response, and we are now at full capacity for all Friday events. But the lecture and worship will be livestreamed and recorded for later viewing if you are interested. I’m especially happy that a few people close to me and to ULS will be offering short remarks at the banquet, too. It will be a smaller-than-usual event because of the pandemic , but I’m sure it will be highly festive and a harbinger of more good times together in the future.

At the actual inaugural service on Saturday, October 16, at 1 pm at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lancaster (where we usually hold ULS Commencements) we also have a good response, but if some extra folks show up, we’ll have room—it’s a big sanctuary—but as at all events we will mask and keep some reasonable separation between groups. We’re asking for those who come in person to inaugural events to be vaccinated. We have a good response from all our constituencies—most of the bishops of our sponsoring ELCA synods will be there, as will almost all the heads of the other ELCA seminaries and a handful of representatives of other seminaries. Our whole faculty (but one) will be there, too, and I look forward to an inaugural photograph together with them. If you plan to attend next Saturday and have not already registered online, please send an email to no later than October 14th and include your full name and affiliation.

Bishop Patricia Davenport of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod will be the preacher and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton will conduct the installation liturgy and preside at the Eucharist on Saturday. In addition to our Regions 7 and 8 bishops we will have two more, Bishop Kevin Strickland of the Southeastern Synod and Bishop Suzanne Dillahunt of the Southern Ohio Synod, with us too. They are both special friends of mine, and I am delighted they’ll be present. The Episcopal Church will be represented by the Dean of the School of Theology at The University of the South and a representative of The General Theological Seminary in New York; the United Church of Christ will be represented by friends of ULS from Lancaster Theological Seminary. Two institutions of which I am an alumnus will be represented by Prof. Volker Leppin, who has just joined the Yale Divinity School faculty there from the university in Tübingen in Germany (where I also studied) and is a good friend and very distinguished colleague in the study of Martin Luther. Having these friends and colleagues around me at this milestone event will bring me great joy and models academic community.

It’s a minor thing, but in the spirit of tradition, newness and change, I have commissioned for myself a new presidential gown to wear at this event and other major seminary events at which I will preside. It’s not the normal Yale blue PhD gown I would wear as a professor, but a special, distinctive one of different cut. It is not especially flashy (being entirely black) but evokes several traditions: the chancellor’s gowns of British institutions; the preaching gowns of Lutheran clergy in northern Europe who were early migrants to America; and the international style of universities across the globe, including Africa and Asia. Since it is of distinctive design, if future presidents of ULS choose to continue the tradition the gown will no longer be about the degree the individual holds, but the office with which they have been entrusted. I also had a mind to what would look good on a leader regardless of their gender presentation, and that would work with both lay and clerical clothing underneath. It may look a little plain among the colorful gowns of the faculty, but that’s OK, I think—they’re entitled to their bright colors and when I am not formally “being president” I will join them in my usual Yale blue academic garb.

On the topic of symbolism, during the lecture on Friday I will be “seated” by the Dean in a ceremonial way in a chair that has been made for me by ULS and is like the one every tenured holder of a named chair has traditionally been given. On that occasion—and because of our closeness to Indigenous Peoples’ Day—I thought it might be meaningful for me to wear an Osage blanket and my Native silver pectoral cross. The warm embrace of that woolen blanket, in the traditional “eldest son” colors of dark blue and red, will connect me to my Osage ancestors in that moment and be of real meaningfulness to me.

Sunday of inauguration weekend will be more casual: there will be special opening times for the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, with access to the cupola for the stupendous views, a reception in the Museum itself, and then an inauguration-themed Music, Gettysburg! concert presentation in the chapel, for which my husband Rob is going to be one of the narrators. I’m very excited about that, too, partly because there’s less “performance” for me that day and I can just enjoy. Then we’ll be in Gettysburg all the week that follows. By the way, I think I will skip “Reflections” next Friday—there is just too much else going on, and the guests will be arriving.

There is just so much joy in me this week! The lovely fall coolness, the changing of the leaves—even the hunkering down for winter—all raise in me happy feelings I have missed during two decades in California. I am ready for cinnamon and cider. Now to hold on to that feeling in the hectic weeks ahead! God bless you all.

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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