Correction: Harvard’s “Chief Chaplain” may be an exaggerated title

August 29, 2021 • 8:45 am

I’m not writing this to diss atheist Greg Epstein, Harvard’s newly elected “chief chaplain” whom I wrote about a few days ago. By all accounts he’s a terrific guy who does a great job. But I have to issue a correction, as a reader who works at Harvard has characterized the New York Times article on Epstein (and hence my post, which drew from that article) as “misleading.” Apparently Harvard does have its own chaplain, who is religious (the NYT didn’t mention that), and Epstein was elected as a leader of the group of unpaid chaplains who deal with people from forty-odd faiths.

Here’s what the reader said, by way of correction:

The NYT article on Greg Epstein is somewhat misleading. It is true that Epstein is a widely admired chaplain within Harvard’s system, but he is not really the “chief chaplain.” Harvard has a two-tier structure of campus ministry. The university directly pays the staff of its Memorial Church, which is led by the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, Matthew Ichihashi Potts. Potts is an Episcopalian priest; his predecessors Jonathan Walton and Peter Gomes were both Baptist ministers. None are/were atheists! Potts is in effect the university chaplain, responsible for the pastoral care of the whole university community and for various ceremonial functions. At the same time, Harvard provides office space but not salaries to about thirty tradition-specific chaplains who are supported in various ways by their respective traditions. Epstein is the humanist chaplain within this structure, and he is also the elected chair of the group—which, as the article explains, gives him the authority to represent the group to the university’s leadership.

5 thoughts on “Correction: Harvard’s “Chief Chaplain” may be an exaggerated title

  1. I at first thought the NYT article was saying that an atheist had been appointed the minister of Memorial Church, which would have been shocking. But the whole article, more by what it left out than what it included, made it clear to me that the atheist chaplain had some other position. But I think only someone familiar with Harvard arcana would realize this, so the overall effect was misleading, and the reader’s comment is well taken. (I attended a few weddings/funerals presided over by Peter Gomes, the then minister of Memorial Church. As a gay black, his time as minister was indeed path breaking.)


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