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Virginia Methodists Say No Money For Christian Campus Group Embracing Homosexuality

This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: rdalfium@binghamton.edu 

Friday, January 12, 2001

Virginia Methodists to Stop Financing Campus Christian Group That Welcomed Gay Students


The United Methodist Church in Virginia has decided to stop financing an interdenominational Christian group at Mary Washington College after the head of the church's higher-education-ministries board concluded that the group is too accepting of gay and lesbian students.

Mary Washington's Campus Christian Community, which has been run jointly by Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Methodists since 1972, has wrestled with the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church's Board of Higher Education Ministries for two years over the issue of homosexuality. Some United Methodist students and community members complained that the campus organization, which is housed in a building owned by the Virginia United Methodist conference, has become dominated by gay and lesbian students in recent years. Gay students, in turn, said they simply want to be accepted for who they are.

Last month, the church's college-ministries board informed the Christian group that it would start its own campus ministry at the Fredericksburg, Va., institution in July, and that it would end its support for the Campus Christian Community at that time. It also decided to take back the building, leaving the Campus Christian Community without a home. The United Methodist board currently contributes $55,000 to the Christian community's $103,000 annual budget.

Catherine Walker, chairman of the Campus Christian Community board, said she was "devastated" by the news. She also defended the group against accusations that it promotes homosexuality simply because it welcomes gay students.

"We are not advocating any special group," she said. "However, we are inclusive, and we do say: 'Come, journey with us. We want you to feel safe and comfortable here.'"

Tensions began during the tenure of the previous Campus Christian Community pastor, the Rev. Daphne Burt, a Lutheran. Pastor Burt, who left in December 1999 to take a position at the University of Chicago, made gay and lesbian students a focus of her ministry. She even performed a gay union ceremony.

The higher-education-ministries board began relaying its concerns to the Christian community's board in 1999 and halted a search for Pastor Burt's replacement over concerns about the group's direction.

Ms. Walker said her board tried to allay the fears of the United Methodists. Of particular concern was a certificate given by a Lutheran organization stating that the Campus Christian Community was a member of its Reconciled in Christ program. The program recognizes congregations that welcome lesbian and gay people.

Ms. Walker said that the certificate was sent by the Lutheran group in response to a vigil that Christian community members held for Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death, and that the Campus Christian Community had never formally applied for membership in the program. But Elizabeth Neidig, a junior, said that student members of the Christian community had in fact applied for Reconciled in Christ standing long before the vigil took place.

Whatever the origin of the certificate, the Christian community's board agreed that it would not formally apply to become a member of Reconciled in Christ. It did, however, amend its mission statement to say that it welcomed students regardless of sexual orientation.

The United Methodist board apparently felt that the group had not distanced itself enough from programs and policies that support gay people. In November, Ms. Walker received a letter from Ira L. Andrews III, president of the Virginia Conference Board of Higher Education Ministries and dean of students at Randolph-Macon College. Mr. Andrews wrote that the Campus Christian Community's continued focus on gays and lesbians was "of grave concern" and warned that its financing was in jeopardy. Specifically, Mr. Andrews said that the Campus Christian Community appeared to advocate "the acceptance and support for homosexuality as a lifestyle."

In December, Mr. Andrews informed Ms. Walker that his board had decided to establish a separate United Methodist campus ministry and would be withdrawing its support of the Campus Christian Community.

Ms. Walker said that she still does not understand what Mr. Andrews objected to, and that the Campus Christian Community was simply following the same guidelines as the United Methodist Church. "The Methodist [Book of] Discipline says that all people are of sacred worth, and we feel we are being true to that," she said.

Another Campus Christian Community board member, James B. Gouger, professor emeritus of geography at Mary Washington, said the decision seemed to result from long-held grudges. "I think there was just a resentment of the ecumenical nature of the Campus Christian Community and anger that built up during the five years Daphne Burt was here," he said.

A statement by the Virginia Conference announcing the decision to form a new ministry at Mary Washington College made no mention of the issue of homosexuality. Instead, the change was attributed to a desire to further the outreach of the United Methodist Church. The Rev. Barbara Barrow, director of higher-education ministries, declined to comment on the controversy. Mr. Andrews could not be reached for comment.

Members of the Campus Christian Community board wrote a letter Wednesday asking the United Methodist board to reconsider its decision. Ms. Walker said they also will encourage alumni and students to write letters. Board members were particularly upset about the United Methodists' claim to the building because a recent addition was financed jointly by the four denominations.

Ironically, the Campus Christian Community has gained a reputation on campus for becoming less hospitable to gays and lesbians since Pastor Burt's departure. Students have laid the blame on the interim pastor, Mochel Morris, a United Methodist. Last spring, Ms. Morris, removed the Reconciled in Christ certificate from a wall in the Christian community's center. She also removed a basket of condoms and pamphlets written by Pastor Burt titled "Our Sexuality is a Gift from God."

Ms. Morris was out of town and could not be reached Thursday for comment. She told the campus newspaper in October that she made the changes because "we do not feel that our primary mission is people's sexuality." She said gay and lesbian students were still welcome to participate in the Campus Christian Community.

But some students don't buy that argument. "There's really a difference in tolerating people who come, and embracing who they are," said Ms. Neidig, a junior who is a member of both the Campus Christian Community and Pride Reflecting Individuals of Sexual Minorities. "Sex as a whole is just kind of checked at the door, whereas before it wasn't taboo to talk about it."

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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