Task force to explore Whitworth’s options in a changing religious landscape

Board of Trustees chair Walter Oliver announced the formation of a task force to advise the board regarding Whitworth’s response to changes in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as well as the church as a whole April 23. Jerry Sittser, professor of theology and a member of the task force, said the formation of the group was sparked in part by recent debate within the Presbyterian denomination.

“The narrow issue has to do with standards of ordination, but also how the denomination governs its affairs,” Sittser said. “There’s been a pretty dramatic shift in both over the last year.”

The PC(USA) voted in July of 2011 to change some of the wording in the Book of Order. This involved changing what was known as the “fidelity and chastity” clause, which stated that those who hold a church office must fulfill certain standards.

“Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness,” the old “Book of Order” stated.

It has been changed to say that church officers should practice “joyful submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.

Future ASWU president junior Molly Hough said she has heard many students discussing this topic.

“I think one of the biggest issues has been coming up on campus recently, and that is homosexuality and sexual orientation of pastors,” she said.

Sittser noted, however, that these questions are only part of the subject matter the board plans to address.

“I think there’s a larger issue going on, and that has to do with how you just function as a church, and how you identify yourself with American culture,” he said.

Part of that has to do with the changing church landscape. Until recently, Sittser said, the mainline churches such as the Presbyterian church were the dominant religious presence in the United States.

That has changed over the past 30 or 40 years.

“All of the mainline protestant churches have suffered precipitous declines,” he said.

The largest percentage of students that identified themselves as Christian at Whitworth 25 years ago came from the PC(USA). Now more come from independent churches, Sittser said.

“I think it’s forcing Whitworth to rethink how it relates to those various religious bodies,” he said.

“We’ve been affiliated with the PC(USA) for our entire history, and I see no reason why that should stop. But the landscape of religion in America is changing and we need to think about what that means for the way we do education here.”

Hough said the task force will work to make an informed decision.

“We are going to do the best that we can in knowing the issues at stake and making ourselves as knowledgeable as possible,” Hough said.

She, president Beck Taylor, and chief of staff Rhosetta Rhodes will soon be discussing the best ways of keeping students apprised of the situation and allowing their input.

“We are having this conversation because it’s been an issue that has come up, and so we’re listening to that,” Hough said. We are trying to form the best possible plan of action that we can use to address these issues.”

The goal is to decide on a plan by April of next year, Hough said.

 

Story by Evanne Montoya Staff Writer

Contact Evanne Montoya at emontoya13@my.whitworth.edu.

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