A chapel packed with well-wishers inaugurates and installs Princeton Seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton

The seminary’s eighth president receives a charge from his predecessor and those in attendance are charged by Harvard University’s former president

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Well-wishers packed the Chapel at Princeton University on Friday to inaugurate and install Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton. (Photo by Chip Hardwick)

LOUISVILLE — Amid glorious music, multiple scripture readings, elegant prayers, thoughtful charges and plenty of smiles and hugs on Friday, Princeton Theological Seminary inaugurated and installed its eighth president, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton.

“I’m deeply humbled to return to an institution that played such a significant role in shaping me professionally and personally,” Walton said. “My wife Cecily and I began our marriage here; our twins were born here; and now my youngest son is growing up here. The chance to give back to this transformative community is more than just a role — it’s a glorious call.”

Walton earned his PhD and his MDiv from Princeton Seminary, and his bachelor’s degree in political science from Morehouse College. On Jan. 1, he succeeded former President M. Craig Barnes, who served as Princeton Seminary’s president for 10 years.

Watch the two-hour service of inauguration and installation, held in the Princeton University Chapel, by going here. The joyous service bore this theme: “Prayer, Purpose and Possibility: A Learning Community for Life.”

Both Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly (2022), the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, were present. Saying “We thank God for the new thing that is this moment,” Starling-Louis quoted Isaiah 43:19.

“What a bold and historic moment!” Santana-Grace said. “You have been called to serve this beloved place in a time such as this, a time when how we prepare our leaders must reflect our current realities.”

Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

In a charge to the learning community, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, an American historian, a former colleague of Walton and the president emerita of Harvard University, said Friday’s ceremony is “a day to recognize and honor Princeton Seminary’s distinguished past and it marks a new chapter, a new future. A ritual like today’s urges us to look both backward and forward.”

Current events including “shocking and cruel” wars, torrential rains, fires and melting polar icecaps are realities that “would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago,” Faust said.

“In this week of such profound tragedy, let me invoke the notion in Jewish theology of repairing the world,” Faust said. “We need the scholarship, the conviction, the courage and the wisdom that you cite in your mission statement — perhaps not just to repair the world, but indeed, even more urgently, to save it.”

“You know the meaning of faith and hope,” she told those packing the chapel. “In this moment of change and possibility for Princeton Seminary, in this moment of need and tragedy in the world, how do you confront the future? What will you do to ensure there is a future for the principles that animate this institution? … As we face a new and frightening era in the world, we today mark a new era at Princeton Seminary. May it be a time when learning illuminates truth, knowledge confronts injustice, and wisdom forges a path towards peace.”

“An education grounded in faith and compassion has never been needed more.”

Dr. Dennis T. Olson, the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology and Chair of the Biblical Studies Department at Princeton Seminary, offered a prayer of gratitude “for what the seminary has done well. We also confess the seminary’s faults and failings in its history.”

Dr. Dennis T. Olson (Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

“Pour out, we pray, your Holy Spirit on President Walton, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence,” Olson told the Almighty. “In the face of the world’s deep needs, bless President Walton in his efforts to lead our seminary into new possibilities for mission, new ventures that are both faithful and bold, new modes of teaching that reach out and serve new communities of learners.”

In his charge to the new president, Barnes reminded those gathered that ancient Israel had “a considerably messier” time selecting its new leaders, especially after King David died. “The Bible is filled with real people who have a hard time discerning the right, much less doing it,” Barnes said. “We too are a confusing mess of good intentions and bad ideas about how to make our dreams come true.”

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes

The hardest part of leading a seminary isn’t the long hours and the endless texts, emails and petitions, according to Barnes. It’s not the conflicting agendas, “nor is it even navigating what eventually feels like the next crisis du jour,” he said. “The hardest part is in the end, you are the one forced to make difficult choices, and you don’t always know the right choice to make. If leadership is an art, it’s a confusing and messy one. We hurt having to hurt those we inevitably disappoint.”

David’s successor to the throne, Solomon, asked God for wisdom. “There it is,” Barnes said. “That’s what we most need from all of our leaders.”

When “we wonder if our choices are really what God had in mind,” a leader can “answer God’s question with a question of your own: What is Jesus doing, here in the world today? The job description for savior of the world has already been filled. Let Jesus be Jesus, and you can be the bold and faithful witness to what the good unfolding of salvation looks like today,” Barnes told his successor.

“It will cost a lot to pursue good in the name of Jesus Christ, President Walton,” Barnes said. “That has always been the Christian’s only path to wisdom.”

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton (Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

“The hands that serve are holier than the lips that preach and pray,” Walton said when it was his turn to speak. “In this installation ritual, I thank God for all of you.”

Christians in mainline churches “must learn from our Christian siblings, Christians who have always answered the call from the margins,” Walton said. “Such courage has helped the global church revisit and revise our guest list,” a reference to one of the texts read during the service, The Parable of the Great Dinner found in Luke 14:15-24.

“What’s on our menu? What are we serving?” Walton asked. “Are we providing a theological meal that answers society’s hunger?”

“My friends, the gospel invites us to a banquet where chairs are shared and not seized,” Walton said. “Our host seizes the moment to swing open the doors of access and opportunity.”

“To be sure, expanding the table will indeed alter us. It’s not a challenge to be feared — it’s an opportunity to be embraced,” Walton said. “This, my friends, is my prayer. This, my friends, is Princeton Seminary’s purpose, and this, together, is our possibility.”

Those gathered to inaugurate and install Walton recessed to the joyous “We’re Marching Up to Zion.”

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