It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.
According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.
Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.
Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.
The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?
During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.
Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.
I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.
Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.
I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.
To be continued.
©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018