LGBT Parents & Allies

Time For Renovation At Duke University

by Katie Becker

On August 22, during a Divinity School orientation panel on diversity, Dean of the Divinity School Richard Hays asserted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” in response to a question about resources for LGBT students. Hays reminded students that the United Methodist Church, the Divinity School’s affiliated denomination, does not ordain homosexual clergy or recognize same-sex unions. In his subsequent “apology” letter, Hays accused critics of “gravely misinterpreting” what he had said while continuing to stress the school’s connection to the United Methodist Church and its outdated teachings.

Those who defend Hays argue that he did nothing wrong in simply sharing a Methodist position.

But that argument falls short when we remember that many divinity school students are not Methodists—indeed, at least 30 different denominations are represented in that student body. The Divinity School chooses to accept and hire non-Methodists, and they must be aware of the realities that come with that. LGBT students at the Divinity School often hope to be ordained in their respective denominations. Hays failed to respect this, instead of sending the message that the Divinity School is hostile toward these students and their pursuit of a career in ministry.

Unfortunately, over the last month, outside of the Divinity School and Chapel communities, this outrageous incident has received little attention. When a prominent figure in our community makes a destructive and prejudicial statement, we have a responsibility to pay attention to. And yet, unless we’re talking about the Refectory, most Duke undergraduates tune out when we hear the words “Divinity School.”

But this event troubled me. I see my identity as a Christian as not only compatible with but as inextricable from, my identity as a feminist and an ally with the LGBT community.

That said, there are times when I feel uncomfortable identifying as a Christian because of the cultural baggage wrapped up in this identity.

I fear that being forthcoming about this affiliation may lead others to brand me as the type of person who would block women’s access to reproductive health services, who would defend the use of phrases like “no homo” and “tranny” and who would alienate and condemn the LGBT community (as Hays has done), all of which are practices that I see as distinctly un-Christian.

It may come as a shock to some that a 2013 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Catholics and 40 percent of Protestant/Other Christians self-identified as “Pro-Choice” when asked their views on abortion. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 92 percent of Catholics and 87.5 percent of Protestants supported comprehensive sex-education. A sizeable number of mainline Christian denominations ordain openly gay clergy, including such big names as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ. Many of these denominations support and perform same-sex marriages.

Why, then, has the church allowed a fundamentalist minority to define and dominate the narrative of what it means to be Christian in this country? Why are we silent as the right wing continues to co-opt the idea of “Christian family values,” focusing not on unconditional love but on the policing of female and so-called “deviant” sexualities? Why do we allow an excessive–even pornographic–focus on issues of sex and sexuality to undermine basic Christian teachings about love and grace?

Progressives have a responsibility—to ourselves, to our communities and to any higher power we may believe in—to fight against threats to our values.

Instead of being lost in the debate, liberal churches must fire back at attacks on our basic liberties. We must respond with the same level of fervor and zeal as those who try to silence us.

Thankfully, many progressive Christians at Duke aren’t keeping silent. Divinity School students and faculty, outraged that an unelected dean would speak for them, have organized in solidarity with the LGBT community. Groups like Blue Devils United and Sacred Worth, the school’s LGBT student union, have used community-organizing tactics–demonstrating at convocation and pressuring the administration to hire a queer theologian, for example–to send the message that there is a place for gay students and clergy in the community.

Starting next fall, the Chapel will be under renovation for a year. It’s also time for a renovation of Christian teachings and “morals.” Just as we expect a building built in 1932 to need refurbishment, so too must we understand that the church and its practices cannot stay relevant without their own adaptations.

If we fail to stand up for those silenced by prejudice, I worry that the Chapel, and the American Christian Church as we know it, will soon be relics of a bygone era.

So let’s look to the Divinity School’s inspiring mobilization as an example of how Christians–and all those who care about social justice–should respond to injustices on our campus and in our world.

Originally published by The Chronicle; Image via flickr user Konstantin Ryabitsev

Comments (5)

Eddie Grove

Great article Katie!! Thanks
Great article Katie!! Thanks for your work to get the word out that being Christian should not have to mean being socially conservative. I just graduated from Princeton and I was a leader in the Episcopal chaplaincy there. We have a great group, but it can be hard to make our voice heard in addition to the larger, more conservative and better funded Christian groups on campus. We also believe that it’s crucial for progressive Christians to let the world know that they’re out there. So thanks so much for your great work and keep it up 🙂

Brian Cornell

We all need renovation. And
We all need renovation. And I loved your statement, “Why do we allow an excessive–even pornographic–focus on issues of sex and sexuality to undermine basic Christian teachings about love and grace?” How do I support conversations and actions to accept my LGBT brethren fully at Duke Div. while making sure that the teachings of love and grace are also used when referring to Dean Hayes and others in power?

Corey Vevera

Katie, thank you for your
Katie, thank you for your article. As an ally to the LGBT community and a Christian, I agree with your charge to fight for the rights of our friends and family who only seek to find love and acceptance in the Church. However I feel the need to push back on the interpretation that I’ve seen across social media and internet blogs regarding the comments Dean Hays made during the diversity panel. I am a first year in the div school who attended the panel, and from where I sat Dean Hays never intended to shut down any questions or discussion about the resources LGBT students have at Duke. Rather his intention was to make the students aware of this conversation happening within the Methodist Church. Duke Divinity School is a Methodist seminary, so Dean Hays thought it necessary to state its stance on the subject brought up by the student’s question. It is important to note that Dean Hays emphasized the section of the Book of Discipline that states “all persons are of sacred worth”. Those particular comments, unfortunately, have been left out of the conversation about this event. Dean Hays’ comments were an example of another way we are diverse (appropriate for the panel), and while I don’t agree with the stance of the United Methodist Church (a church I am pursuing ordination in, and a church I hope will one day fully accept my gay brothers and sisters) Dean Hays comments were meant to inform all of the conversation, for all to be aware of where some of the faculty and staff at Duke Divinity School might be on this conversation (including the two professors on the panel who chose not to answer the student’s question). I can absolutely see the perspective of those calling the event an “outrage”, and from how everything shook out it looked like Dean Hays shut down the conversation. However the reality is the panel had run past its scheduled time, and the panel had to end so we could go to our next activity. The perception of Dean Hays shutting down the conversation was a result of bad timing and a reaction to the term “incompatible with Christian teachings” (a phrase I dislike as well). Admittedly, Dean Hays didn’t help his position by the passive-aggressive apology he wrote, but I sense he was reacting to the rumors and anger that arose out on social media.
I’m not trying to start an argument, just trying to shed some light on what actually happened at the diversity panel that day.

The Rev. Sara Gavit

Thank you for the essay and
Thank you for the essay and also the comments. I am discerning my application to the DMin program at Duke and I appreciate the information. As an Episcopal priest who is a lesbian, I ask: what is the climate for GLBT folks enrolled at Duke Divinity?

Actual Divinity Student

Katie Becker is a sophomore
Katie Becker is a sophomore at Duke University. She is not a divinity student. If she were, then she might be in an adequate position to answer Rev. Sara Gavit’s question regarding what is actually going on in the divinity school. Furthermore, she might not castigate those in the divinity school who disagree with her as a fundamentalist “other”– an enemy. Katie calls for war. Christianity calls for peace.

One more thing: I recommend Katie have lunch with Richard Hays–to find out why he thinks what he thinks–before she attempts to demonize him.

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