The Op-Ed

16 Feb

Note on context of op-ed. Below is an op-ed that I was asked to write for our local paper, The Tennessean (2/7/12). There has been a great deal of local and national controversy over VU’s decision to place several religious organizations on “provisional” status because their bylaws were not in compliance with VU’s nondiscrimination policy (revised 1999) or their “All Comers” policy, which will expand nondiscrimination so that religious groups cannot vet leadership solely on the basis of belief. Our student ministry is in compliance, in large part, because we have a generic All Comers theology rooted in our sacramental (Wesleyan) understanding of Open Table as means of grace. There are other reasons as well, mostly due to our ecumenical makeup. I’d love to hear what you think, and what may be happening in your settings!

If I had to summarize the controversy over Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy I would borrow from Mark Twain: rumors of religious freedom’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In light of our chancellor’s recent statement of policy, and subsequent Town Hall meeting, the question somehow persists: are religious organizations disallowed from faithfully serving students and their respective traditions with integrity? This is a two-part question that I will answer in reverse order.

First, does full compliance with VU’s nondiscrimination policy threaten the integrity of religious tradition?  Compliance hinges on an annual registration agreement to be open and accessible to all students regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. (referred to as the “All Comers” policy).  But compliance also stipulates that All Comers be allowed to seek leadership through whatever electoral or selection process that ministry adopts.

Contrary to scattered reports and opinions, compliance does not force any group to automatically incorporate the non-traditional or anti-religious into its leadership. I can only speak for our student ministry, but the theological commitments and spiritual ethos of our fellowship, not unlike that of a local church, synagogue or mosque, honors the received wisdom of the tradition by mentoring and grooming newcomers to embody a range of leadership talent that, in turn, serves the group’s mission and purpose.

Does the All Comer have a seat at our table? Yes! Can the outsider become an inspired leader who revitalizes the spiritual legacy of a tradition that sees him or her as unorthodox? Absolutely! Is the integrity of our faith compromised? I have yet to see this happen in eighteen years of my ministry at VU, but I am aware that other traditions have misgivings and experiences that warrant consideration.

This leads to the last question: will All Comers keep us from faithfully serving students? After all, it is the faith development of students that becomes the litmus test for policies that define religious freedom. Our campus ministry is ecumenical and, by nature, eclectic. Curious seekers, who later became effective leaders, meandered into our midst because we were an All Comers organization before it had such a name. On balance, an All Comers attitude has helped us faithfully include a demographic of students for whom the church on campus exists.

Are there risks to All Comers that could sabotage tradition and thus misguide students?  I have heard hypothetical arguments that warn against hostile takeovers by rogue students bent upon destruction and mayhem. While all things are possible, most students that I’ve talked to say, “you are overestimating what kind of time we have on our hands.” What if a true believer, elected as a leader, goes through a period of agnostic doubt? Should he or she be excused from office, or expelled from the group? All Comers says no, but some are under denominational constraints that insist otherwise.

There is no absolute verdict on All Comers. For better or worse, it defines the parameters of freedom and accountability that are assessed by a private university that, so far, allows us to risk what faith makes imperative, and possible.

Reverend Mark Forrester is the United Methodist Affiliated Chaplain at Vanderbilt University.

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