Breidenthal named dean of religious life

The Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Breidenthal, a scholar, teacher and Episcopal priest who has been a leader in interfaith cooperation, has been named dean of religious life at Princeton University, effective Jan. 1.

Breidenthal, the John Henry Hobart Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York, will fill the position left vacant by the retirement of Joseph Williamson in June.

"As dean, Tom Breidenthal, a pastoral minister and scholar, will bring strong and compassionate leadership to the religious life of this University and will work to create an even greater sense of community among students, faculty and staff of all faiths," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "The tragedies of Sept. 11 have illuminated the importance of this task, and have reminded us of the central role that is played on this campus by the dean of religious life."

Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson, who led the search, said Breidenthal brings an unusual combination of theological and pastoral experience and academic qualifications. "He is a sensitive and caring minister who has worked throughout his career to promote an essential dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims and among Christian denominations. At the same time, he is recognized as a scholar who challenges us to think about some of the most pressing issues in theology."

As dean, Breidenthal will oversee all religious activities on campus and provide support for all traditions, while serving as liturgical leader to the University Chapel congregation. He will be responsible for ecumenical worship and for the three principal University interfaith services - Opening Exercises, the Service of Commemoration and Remembrance, and Baccalaureate.

Breidenthal joined the General Theological Seminary in 1992, primarily teaching courses in ethics, moral theology and philosophy, and the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and recently served on the Seminary's faculty-administration leadership team. He has written one book, "Christian Households: The Sanctification of Nearness" (1997), and is now writing a book about contemporary political theology. He also has contributed about a dozen essays, articles and reviews to books and scholarly journals, and presented many talks on ethics and other topics to clergy, lay and academic audiences.

Ordained as an Episcopal deacon in 1981 and priest in 1982, Breidenthal was an Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow in Oxford, England; senior chaplain at the Harvard School, a religiously diverse high school in Los Angeles; rector at Trinity Church in Ashland, Ore.; and assistant priest at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in New York.

At the General Theological Seminary, Breidenthal headed the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies and Relations for several years and participated in dialogue with Islamic leaders. His longstanding interest in interfaith cooperation began when he was a teenage actor and singer in a production by a Jewish community center. He was the only non-Jewish cast member, and he played a Cossack.

"That really had a profound effect on me," he recalled. "I realized that my own ancestors and ethnicity were bound up in a story of exclusion and persecution, not only against the Jewish people, but by extension against Muslims and other groups. It sowed a seed that showed me I could not live out my own Christian faith in isolation."

In another life-changing experience, Breidenthal, then a church rector from a liberal tradition, was invited to visit an evangelical clergy group in his community. "They embraced me and taught me a lot," he said. "We had differences, but we also need to remember that we are able to pray together and have common concerns. I hope to contribute to a wider discussion among people of Christian faith at Princeton as well."

Breidenthal has served on planning teams for the Conference on Third World Debt Relief sponsored by the Office of the Anglican Observer at the United Nations and the Yitzchak Rabin Memorial Conference on Texts of Violence in the Abrahamic Faiths sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (1996).

He received his bachelor's degree from Portland State University, a master's degree in English literature from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and a master of divinity degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. He earned a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, where he wrote his dissertation on "The Concept of Freedom in Hannah Arendt: A Christian Assessment."

Breidenthal said he plans to continue his scholarly research and to teach while at Princeton. He said he will reach out widely on campus and in the larger community.

"I look forward to being part of a team of religious leaders and others at Princeton who are working to continue making Princeton a place that is more and more open to everyone, where barriers of class and race are broken down," he said. "We need to work constantly to make sure that institutions of learning are models for society - that we are genuinely a place of encounter with the stranger, and of embrace."

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601