Honoring Dean Attridge, on eve of departure

At the end of June, Dean Harold Attridge will step down following two five-year terms at the helm of Yale Divinity School.  Early spring was a time for colleagues, alumni, students, and staff to thank the dean and his wife, Jan, for their service to the school and to wish them "bon voyage" as they embark on a yearlong sabbatical in Australia.

SermonAmong the highlights of the celebrations was the announcement, at the joint dinner of the YDS and Berkeley Divinity School boards on April 19, of the Harold and Jan Attridge Scholarship Fund, which will serve in perpetuity as a reminder of Dean Attridge's commitment to making enrollment at YDS affordable to all.

An engaging video of current students thanking Attridge for his commitment to financial aid set the stage for student body President Jared Gilbert '12 M.Div. to announce that $420,000 had already been raised toward the $500,000 cost of establishing the fund.  Most of that came from current and former members of the boards: the YDS Advisory Board, the YDS Alumni Board, and the Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

At the dinner, leaders of each of the boards added their thanks to the Attridges for their service to the school.

Jerry Henry '80 M.Div., president of the Alumni Board, said, "Truly you have exemplified the core of the mission of YDS, uniting faith and intellect, preparing leaders for ministry in church and world."  He noted that the Attridges had hosted well over 150 luncheons or dinners and nearly 100 receptions over the past decade.  

Berkeley Chair Carl Anderson pronounced Dean Attridge "a wonderful colleague and true friend of Berkeley" who has been "an honor to work with."

And Chris Sawyer '75 M.Div., co-chair of the YDS Advisory Board, added that the Attridges had left "sacred space up here on the hill" that is a place of academic excellence where faith is also celebrated; a place of "graciousness and hospitality;" and "a tremendous place of hope" at a time of difficult challenges in the history of mainline Christianity .

Several days following the joint board dinner, Yale President Richard Levin hosted a reception in honor of the Attridges.

"It would be very hard to imagine a person more perfectly suited to the job of dean of Yale Divinity School than Harry," Levin told the gathering, noting, too, that Jan Attridge has been a "warm and gracious hostess."

Said Levin, "It takes someone who just has an extraordinary skill and ease about wearing the mantle lightly, without any pretense and yet by the virtue of his extraordinary scholarship and his astonishing ability to communicate as a leader, as a scholar, that...when it's all over he's certainly done an amazing job over these 10 years in making the Divinity School a stronger community and a distinguished place for scholarship and teaching."

AttridgesFor his part, Dean Attridge noted, "We couldn't be here without the enormous support that we've received from the university," citing the more than $34 million the university provided toward the costs of renovating Sterling Divinity Quadrangle.  Said Attridge, "That shows that the University has belief in the school." 

More encomiums followed during the April 24 spring faculty dinner.

Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs, recalled that, when she was starting out as associate dean, Attridge had offered a bit of advice, telling her,  "The important thing about this job is to show up.  Be a presence, and let people know you care."

"And, oh, how he has shown up," Townes said, "and his presence is felt not only on the second floor (administration) but also in the chapel, in our faculty and governing board meetings, in search committee review committee, and standing committee meetings, and meetings across the university, in the classroom, and in the academy."

Attridge has encouraged "rigorous scholarship and dancing minds," Townes remarked, adding, "You actually read what we write."

Townes called Jan Attridge a woman of  "strong conviction and forthright ideas," "fierce intellect," a "wonderful interlocutor at meals" and "the most southern northern hospitality I have ever encountered."

During the entire length of his tenure as dean, Attridge was regularly in attendance at chapel services, held every weekday morning in Marqand Chapel.  And so it was fitting that he delivered the last sermon of his time as dean during the last worship service of the semester on April 24.

"Like you, I shall miss much about this place. I should first assure you, however, that there are some things about the job of dean that I (will) not miss," quipped Attridge.

He then went on to list some of things he will miss:  "The routines of this place, the occasional stop at Dale's candy bowl, the chats over coffee, the eager expectations of newcomers at BTFO, the challenging lecturers we occasionally hear and the lively conversations we have with them.

"I'll miss the beauties of the Quad on a crisp fall day, or days like the one's we've had here recently when spring is in the air.  I'll miss old friendships, friendships in my case that have been formed not only with students who have been here for a year or two or three, with wonderful colleagues on the faculty and staff  with whom it has been my honor to serve over the course of the last 15 years. 

Lectures"Perhaps most of all I'll miss the life of Marquand Chapel...extraordinarily beautiful music, its liturgical dance...I'll miss the inspiring preaching, the faces and gracious presence of all who come together here regularly in this welcoming, ecumenical space."

Attridge closed by saying he rejoices in the students, "the healing presence you will be to a wounded world.  The enlightenment that your scholarship will bring to a world that needs that knowledge.  The prophetic voice that you will sound in the face of injustice that continues to afflict our world."

Following worship, at coffee hour, Attridge was honored by Dean of Students Dale Peterson and a number of student leaders.

Peterson raised up Attridge's "absolute commitment to doing whatever he can to provide for the needs, wants, desires of every student."

"So much of the work of this place is like an iceberg, you know, you sort of see the tip of it," said Peterson.  "But underneath the water is what happens late at night and early in the morning and behind closed doors and in the house and all of that...I just want to say that there are many, many, many things that Jan and Harry together have done to care for all of us and to keep this place as wonderful a place as it is."

Lyvonne Briggs '12 M.Div. thanked Attridge for "showing that scholarship can be a ministry, that intellect is not something that you can be afraid of, to give us the strength and the courage to interrogate our faith in a way that helps us to live it out even fuller."

Alex Peterson '12 M.Div. said, "He humanized YDS for me and allowed  me to actually feel that I could thrive here...it was about people working together, professors, students, admins, all of us working with one another for a common goal of bettering YDS rather than just students being pushed through."

Leonard Curry ‘13 M.Div. thanked Attridge for his welcoming of queer and trans-gendered students and for his graciousness.

On March 29 a light-hearted celebration of the Attridge years was held before a packed Common Room audience,  representing a revival of the tradition of the "Taylor House Lectures."

The theme of the night was "Searching For the Yachting Jesus," which played to the dean's well-known passion for sailing.

To navigate the depths of Attridge's secretive life as seaman, his Biblical Studies colleagues at YDS joined in a shanty, each singing different praises of the departing dean.

Jeremy Hultin, associate professor of New Testament, had the crowd roaring with laughter when he placed the yachting dean in the context of the quest for the historical Jesus.

LecturesHultin complained that since the quest began scholars have "looked down the long well of history and seen their own reflection."  Many of those scholars, though, quipped Hultin, lack the lived sailing experience of Attridge, and that has put them at a disadvantage in understanding the historical Jesus.  Such a unique experience, Hultin speculated, is precisely what binds Attridge to the historical Jesus and provides the edge to his scholarship.

In addition, noted Hultin, Attridge sports a short but noteworthy beard—just like Jesus! With the aid of a first-class power point presentation, Hultin effectively uncovered the mystery of what makes Attridge a standout scholar in historical Jesus studies. The combination of boating skills and beards are precisely what knot the yachting Jesus and the sailing dean together.

When Attridge returns from his yearlong sabbatical, he will resume teaching New Testament at YDS, but as Sterling professor.   A rarity, being named a Sterling professor is the highest honor Yale can bestow upon a member of the faculty.

The Attridges leave for Australia in mid September and will return in August, 2013.

Dean Attridge's main project during the sabbatical will be work on a commentary on the Gospel of John, on which he has been working for the last decade.

Upon arrival in Australia, the Attridges will stay first in Sydney, then do some travel in Australia and to destinations in Asia, followed by a stay in Melbourne from January to June. In late June and July they will be in Western Australia, mainly Perth, the site of the 2013 conference of the Society of New Testament Studies.

Date Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 11:46pm