Just a few days before his inauguration, the president of Andover Newton Theological School, a Christian seminary in Newton, made a stunning public admission: He acknowledged having an extramarital relationship, an admission that has badly shaken the small campus.
In a letter sent out to the school community in late September, the Rev. Martin Copenhaver described the relationship as a “source of great remorse” and asked for forgiveness.
“Words are inadequate to express how much I regret my actions and the ways they have hurt others,” wrote Copenhaver, who was a longtime minister of a Wellesley parish. “I realize that forgiveness can take time, and I hope you are willing to take that time. I know that I am eager to do whatever might contribute to healing and reconciliation.”
The unusually forthright public admission hung heavy over Copenhaver’s inauguration ceremony last Sunday at Old South Church in Boston and deeply disappointed many students, faculty, and graduates.
Copenhaver, 59, who was appointed last November and assumed the post in June, said the relationship ended before he was a candidate for president and was not with anyone associated with the school or any church he had served.
“I fully realize that this does not in any way justify my actions, but I believe it is important for you to know,” he wrote.
Jim Sherblom, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said, “People are going through a state of shock and sadness. . . . I think it’s going to be a long process.”
The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, an Andover Newton graduate, wrote on her blog that she was “shocked and dismayed” by the revelation.
“For me, knowledge of the president-elect’s violation of his marriage covenant is a revelation of distressing facts about his character and religious integrity,” wrote Weinstein, parish minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn.
“Clergy have a particular stake in this decision, because it is we who suffer most the public’s scorn when we behave in ways that validate their sense that religion is a special haven for hypocrites,” she added.
In his inaugural speech, Copenhaver said he had “always believed in a God of redemption.”
“Now I hold that belief very close,” he said. “I take solace in knowing that our God has a peculiar and persistent way of working through flawed people.”
Trustees said they considered delaying the inauguration, but ultimately chose to proceed.
In an interview Friday, Copenhaver said he acknowledged the affair when confronted by a trustee about it this summer, and told the board’s executive committee he was willing to resign. While trustees censured him for failing to disclose the affair during the search process, they decided he should stay on as president.
‘The trustees believed last fall that Martin was the right choice to lead our institution, and we continue to believe that today.’
“Ultimately, we found ourselves gravitating toward a response that, of course, expects contrition and accountability but that also, most importantly, reflects our trust in the redemptive powers of confession and forgiveness,” the trustees wrote in a Sept. 26 letter. “We have chosen a path paved with grace.”
Trustees wrote that the admission “shocked and shook us,” and that the board conducted a thorough investigation and consulted faculty before deciding that Copenhaver should remain.
“In many respects this decision felt like a decision about the future of Andover Newton itself,” they wrote. “We assure you the weight of this decision resting on our shoulders was heavy.”
They agreed that students, faculty, and alumni deserved to know about the affair, Sherblom said.
“If it was anyone other than the president, we would have treated it as a private personnel matter,” Sherblom said.
Copenhaver said he did not tell trustees about the affair while he was a candidate to become president because “it was in my past.” He said that while making the disclosure public was extremely difficult, it was necessary to move forward.
“In order to deal with it with integrity, we needed to be open,” he said. “That was not an easy decision, but it seemed clear.”
Copenhaver, a widely published author, said the news has elicited a wide range of reactions.
“Some have responded with love and encouragement, others with love and anger,” he said. “Obviously, we’re in a time of rebuilding trust, and there’s still much work to be done.”
Andover Theological Seminary was established in 1807 by Congregationalists as the nation’s first theological seminary. The current student body is primarily composed of students with backgrounds in the United Church of Christ, Baptist, and Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Before becoming president of Andover Newton, Copenhaver was senior minister at Wellesley Congregational Church for two decades.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said pastors across the religious spectrum who acknowledge affairs are virtually always forced to step down.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a seminary president staying on after this type of indiscretion,” he said. “I can’t think of a similar situation.”
But in its letter, the school’s board expressed confidence in Copenhaver.
“The trustees believed last fall that Martin was the right choice to lead our institution, and we continue to believe that today,’’ they wrote.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.