The homosexuality debate that has torn apart mainline denominations is fanning faculty and student protests at Calvin College, and highlights a growing issue facing evangelical schools.
The spark was a memo issued by trustees of the Grand Rapids school prohibiting "advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage" both in and outside the classroom. Sent to faculty and staff before fall classes began, the memo provoked charges that the board was curtailing academic freedom, due process, and Calvin's tradition of vibrant Christian inquiry.
The Faculty Senate has asked the board to rescind the memo, arguing it bypassed normal faculty-review procedures for policy changes.
The board recently (Oct. 24) declined to do so but appointed a committee to revisit the statement in consultation with faculty. The committee also will suggest ways for Calvin to articulate academic freedom at a Reformed Christian college, and recommend whether the whole issue should be referred to the Christian Reformed Church Synod.
The case is being watched with interest by other schools struggling to balance compassion and doctrine in their policies on gays.
"I think it's a symptom of the growing lack of consensus about this issue," said Stanton Jones, provost at Wheaton College and a sexuality scholar. "The debates that once were contained within the mainline denominations are spilling over into the evangelical denominations."
He added that young evangelicals increasingly see homosexuality "not as an issue of sexual morality but as an issue of justice, dignity, or tolerance." But other prospective students and their parents want colleges to hold to traditional positions.
"There are some people for whom this has become the litmus test for whether you are properly compassionate and have a proper commitment to social justice," Jones said. "Others say this is a key litmus test for whether you're properly biblical."
Neither Wheaton nor Calvin is seen as gay friendly, according to the Princeton Review's recent college ratings. Wheaton was ranked first in the category "alternative lifestyles not an alternative"; Calvin was 13th among 371 schools.
For Calvin faculty, the debate goes beyond policy positions to the very mission of the college.
"They are more unified on this than I've seen them unified on anything for a long time," said Karin Maag, vice chair of the Faculty Senate.
Professors wonder why trustees singled out the gay issue, Maag said, adding, "There is a worry among some colleagues that this is the thin edge of the wedge. Will the board of trustees start making statements about other issues?"
The board considered the senate's request in late October as members of the Calvin community re-examine what it means to pursue truth at the 4,000-student college owned by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
Conversations were catalyzed at Calvin, Wheaton, and other schools in recent years by visits from Soulforce, a national gay advocacy group that toured dozens of Christian colleges.
After Soulforce visited Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, in 2007, students published a volume of stories by gay and lesbian students about their struggles. Gordon encouraged its students to talk with Soulforce but vowed the college would not veer from its policy prohibiting sex outside of male-female marriage.
It's not a big issue for prospective students, said Gordon spokesperson Jo Kadlecek. "We hear more questions about the dining hall or the professor-student ratio," she said.
Following the 2007 Soulforce visit, more controversy came to Calvin with Seven Passages, a play about gay Christians conceived and directed by Calvin drama professor Stephanie Sandberg and performed at a Grand Rapids community theater. Drawn from 127 interviews and questioning traditional interpretations of Scripture, it was also performed at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops.
An Iowa church asked Calvin trustees to examine Sandberg's work and clarify college policy. The board found the play and a related blog were "essentially advocacy" of gay relationships and "unacceptable for a professor at Calvin College."
The board's memo affirms the CRC's position that homosexual orientation is not sinful but homosexual practice is. Though alternative views may be aired, it reads, "The position of the church and the college should be clearly and sympathetically presented."
Chairman Bastian Knoppers emphasized that the board did not intend to circumvent policy processes but to clarify existing policy. At the same time, he said, "we believe we are also accountable to churches and the denomination."
Sandberg insists she did not set out to advocate, but was guided by Calvin's academic tradition and the CRC's own policy calling for more outreach to gays.
"To me it was the cornerstone of the institution—the idea of pursuing truth in the love of Christ," Sandberg said.
Administrators say they honor that tradition but walk a tightrope between church doctrine and welcoming gay students.
"Parents continually ask, 'Is my gay son or daughter going to be safe here at Calvin?' " said provost Claudia Beversluis. "Some parents say, 'We want a really conservative Christian college, and you don't seem to be that.' "
Anna, a bisexual Calvin student who asked that her last name not be used, said she fears a chilling effect.
"This memo silences discussion," she said. "You can't deal with the issue unless you're talking about it."
At a recent campus forum, eminent scholars said Calvin faculty members always have been able to speak their minds on social and church issues. They noted that Calvin defended the evolutionary writings of astronomy professor Howard Van Till in the 1980s against accusations of heresy.
"It has been the envy of every other conservative Christian college in the nation," said Nicholas Wolterstorff, a retired philosopher at Calvin and Yale Divinity School.
George Marsden, a retired historian at Calvin and the University of Notre Dame, cautioned against making lists of positions faculty may not advocate. Militarism and abortion could also be considered confessional issues, he said.
"There are too many possible issues," Marsden said. "You're stirring up controversy you don't have to have."
But Calvin president Gaylen Byker said if it is determined Calvin's policy on homosexuality flows from the historic confessions faculty must sign, trustees acted properly.
"My sense is we ought to have a broadly based discussion of … the relationship between being a confessional college and academic freedom," Byker said.
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The Grand Rapids Press also reported Tuesday that Calvin College officials are not withdrawing the memo regarding homosexuality, but plan to study how Christian Reformed Church teachings relate to academic freedom.
Previous articles on Calvin College can be found in the education special section, including:
Values Clash | Calvin College's denominational requirements make diversity a challenge. (December 20, 2007)
Bush Visit to Calvin College Exposes Divisions | Commencement address invigorates debates about the Reformed relationship to American politics and evangelicalism. (May 20, 2005)
Calvin College on U2 | College class on U2 explores religious influence of a rock band. (February 23, 2005)
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