The community of The General Theological Seminary (GTS) was saddened to learn of the death on April 5 of one of its longest serving Deans, the Very Rev. James Corner Fenhagen. Dean Fenhagen’s tenure, from 1978 to 1992, encompassed a major renovation of the Seminary’s library, the establishment of a program for Hispanic and Latino seminarians, and a flourishing of the Seminary’s ministries in Jewish-Christian relations and Christian spirituality. His own writings, in such works as Mutual Ministry (1977) and More Than Wanderers (1978), helped to spark a whole movement known as “total ministry.” Emphasizing the role of the laity in congregational life, his writings insisted on the need for innovative partnerships been clergy and lay leaders in parish ministry. The Episcopal News Service has provided a more detailed obituary of Dean Fenhagen’s ministry, both before and after his time as the Seminary’s Eleventh Dean and President. “Jim put his theories of congregation life into practice right here at General,” said GTS Professor of Church History, Dr. J. Robert Wright. “He had an amazing ability to make absolutely everyone feel that they were an intrinsic and valued part of the GTS community. A wise counselor to students and faculty alike, Jim’s pastoral sensitivity was at the heart of his priestly ministry. It was a privilege to serve here with him.” Ms. Antoinette “Toni” Daniels, former Director of Admissions at GTS, also served during Dean Fenhagen’s tenure. “Jim hired me and was amazingly supportive as I learned my job,” she said. “Shortly after my arrival I was hospitalized for some complex surgery. Jim was the first to arrive at the hospital—even before many members of my family! He was a wonderful pastor to me.”
Known to generations of students as a patient listener and advisor, Dean Fenhagen’s courses in Pastoral Theology were considered invaluable by students who later came to serve as pastors in Episcopal congregations. While teaching the need for daily spiritual practices that included prayer and solitude, Dean Fenhagen was fully engaged in the social issues of his day. He led GTS students in protesting outside the offices of the South African Consulate during the darkest days of apartheid. He was a close friend of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and invited the Archbishop to serve as a Visiting Professor at GTS in 1984, resulting, as it turned out, in the Archbishop receiving the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in residence on the Close.
At Dean Fenhagen's funeral in South Carolina on Monday, April 8, General Seminary was represented by GTS President Lang Lowrey and a number of GTS alumni/ae. “Jim Fenhagen was a very helpful advisor to me when I was discerning my own call to ministry,” said President Lowrey, “I cherished his wise council and felt privileged to be able to extend to Mrs. Fenhagen and others in his family the condolences of the Seminary community.”
Dean Fenhagen’s death during Holy Week speaks to a central theme of his life. “At the heart of the biblical story is the image of life emerging out of death,” he wrote in Mutual Ministry. “For Christians this is the Easter story—that image of new life which moved that first apostolic community from mourning into celebration. In my own life, it is this image that probably is the root image of my faith. Until I am forced to die to my need to control the outcome of what I offer to another, I cannot love—and without love, I cannot live.”
A Eucharist in memory of Dean Fenhagen will be celebrated in the Chapel of Good Shepherd on Friday, May 11 at 11:45 a.m. followed by a time a reflection when those attending will be invited to share reminiscences of the Dean and his ministry at General Seminary.