A vexing situation – Sexuality 4

When I interviewed for a faculty appointment at the seminary in 1983, no one asked about my sexuality or sexual history. I was married and had two children. I was an active member of the Presbyterian Church. I was interested in women’s studies and issues of importance to women, and as a theological student I had a good record and outstanding references. Besides, my guest lecture was well received.

Years later, I’m the dean, responsible for having a confidential conversation with each final candidate about sexuality and other topics. This includes conversation about the now-official standard of the seminary on human sexuality and moral conduct, questions they might have about this area, and questions I was expected to ask them. Which I did.

In order to help us through this sometimes awkward conversation, I used a one-page handout excerpted from a 1996 memo to the faculty. It was about the new board-approved policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. I sent it in advance to our final candidates, with other material about the seminary.

If the candidate was already inclined in the direction of the seminary’s policy, there was no hesitation. However, if the candidate had questions, it was sometimes awkward. Not just for them, but for me.

I couldn’t pretend that living with this policy wasn’t important. To my surprise, some were reassured by my history with students struggling with sexual issues. The same was true about ways I dealt with classroom presentations and dynamics. There might be room for them here, and it wouldn’t be easy. Especially in the classroom.

The new policy, nearly 10 years in the making, included a statement about behavior, and two implications for faculty.

  • Regarding behavior, those who affirm and practice forms of sexual intimacy contrary to the seminary’s guidelines will not be admitted as students, or employed at the seminary. A further sentence, for the benefit of faculty members hired earlier than 1996 said, “This item is in reference to all decisions subsequent to the adoption of this policy.”

Regarding faculty, there were two stated implications.

  • First, we were to make sure seminarians dealt with the range of positions about current moral issues the Church faced. These included human sexuality and moral conduct.
  • Second, in our teaching we couldn’t argue against the seminary’s policy about sexuality (whether heterosexual or homosexual). We could, however, tell students about our own struggles regarding human sexuality and moral conduct, including our present understanding of difficult issues related to sexuality. Nonetheless, we could not “undermine or invalidate” the seminary’s policy. Furthermore, when speaking publicly or privately on behalf of the seminary, we were to articulate clearly and uphold the seminary’s policy.

The first implication was fairly straightforward. The second, however, felt late and one-sided. I’d learned the hard way which questions I could and could not answer in large required courses. Now, however, any sign that I was still ‘struggling’ with these issues sounded to some like the equivalent of teaching against the seminary. The only safe professors were those in full and complete agreement with the policy as stated.

I keep wondering what I would do differently if I were being interviewed today for the same faculty position.

Thanks so much for reading, and for your comments along the way. One more post coming (I think)!

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 April 2018