By the time the last of the latecomers straggled into the chapel, a chair had become a hot commodity. As dozens of extras were put out and quickly filled, it became clear that the crowd had only one option: If they wanted to stay, they were going to have to stand.
Stand they did. Not for just a few minutes, but for more than an hour and a half, listening as four members of a panel, commissioned by president Beck Taylor, pondered and discussed one of the university’s most provocative topics, the issue of homosexuality.
As a courageous conversation about sexual orientation, the panel, held the night of April 18, brought together two Whitworth professors and two members of the Board of Trustees to dialogue about homosexuality from their various areas of expertise. Professor of theology James Edwards and professor of political science Julia Stronks spoke from their respective disciplines, and trustees Scott Dudley and David Myers addressed the issue from pastoral and psychological perspectives.
For moderator Terry McGonigal, the panel is yet another barometer of the persistent disagreement that has surrounded the issue of homosexuality ever since he signed on as Whitworth’s dean of spiritual life in 1994. Eighteen years later, homosexuality remains one of the university’s most controversial subjects.
However, professor of English Leonard Oakland said that has not always been the case.
Oakland, who has been teaching at Whitworth for 46 years, said when he arrived in 1966, homosexuality was not discussed often.
“As a community issue, it certainly did not emerge,” Oakland said. “It might form parts of individual conversations, or it might come in a course now and then, but it was not a live issue in the sense that it is now.”
It was with the arrival of Bill Robinson in 1993, Oakland said, that the issue was brought to light.
“Bill Robinson brought it to campus attention early in his presidency,” Oakland said. “Bill came to the conclusion that while his reading of Scripture led him to conclude that Scripture sees homosexuality as sinful, he went on to say — and this was something very new in the conversation — that homophobia was more sinful.”
Oakland said Robinson’s major contribution was articulating a “middle path” whereby Whitworth could uphold biblical teaching while embracing people of various backgrounds. In practice, Robinson’s administration walked this middle path by refusing to embrace an official university position on homosexuality.
Now, however, changes in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Whitworth’s affiliate denomination, provide a new backdrop to the homosexuality debate. In 2010, the PC (USA) modified its constitution to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals, a stance that along with other changes in the PC (USA) have since prompted many churches to re-examine their denominational affiliation.
Less than a week after the panel, Walt Oliver, chairman of the Board of Trustees, announced the establishment of a task force that over the next year will explore Whitworth’s connection with the PC (USA).
But according to Trustee Clark Donnell, co-chair of the task force along with Taylor, homosexuality is not the task force’s main concern. Rather, he points to a decline in the PC (USA)’s demographics as well as what some view as the denomination’s gradual move away from the authority of Scripture.
For many, the authority of Scripture is central to the debate.
“You simply will not be able to find a place in Scripture that condones it,” Edwards said. “You could not go to Scripture and say that Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality is ambiguous. It is not. It is consistent. It is univocal.”
Some, however, are not so sure. Julia Stronks, another panelist, said she agrees that Scripture can be understood differently.
“Not all Christian theologians interpret biblical passages about sexual behavior in the same way,” Stronks said.
In the midst of so many perspectives, whether a new stance is needed to replace Robinson’s policy of neutrality remains a live question.
McGonigal said he believes neutrality should remain.
“It’s both our educational mission but also our Christian mission to provide you the opportunity to take a look at a variety of different ways of coming at a particular issue,” McGonigal said.
The administration taking a stand for or against homosexuality, McGonigal said, would necessarily undermine the courageous debate Whitworth intends to foster.
But Edwards said he finds it difficult to reconcile neutrality on homosexuality with the loyalty to Scripture Whitworth claims to embrace.
“I believe that the administration sees this issue as a potentially very divisive issue,” Edwards said, who sees Whitworth’s neutral stance as a pragmatic way to avoid conflict. “From a utilitarian and practical viewpoint, that is an appealing option.”
As campus dialogue indicates, the Whitworth community has yet to come to a consensus on this controversial topic, nor is it certain a consensus will emerge.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a winner-take-all solution to these problems,” Edwards said.
Instead, he said, Whitworth has two options.
“One of them is that we fight to the death like two stags who lock horns until either one of them kills the other or sometimes they both die together,” Edwards said. “The other option, which is the one I want to argue for, is that I grant you your right to your view, and you grant me my right to my view, and we continue talking.”
Story and graphic by Michael Bouterse Guest Writer
Contact Michael Bouterse at firstname.lastname@example.org.