On September 27, 2013, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University bestowed Distinguished Alumni Awards on three of its graduates. The decision to give this award to one of those alumni—the Reverend H. Eddie Fox—elicited protest. On the day that the awards were given, that protest took the form of a march outside the awards ceremony. I was part of that march.
We gathered in protest because Eddie Fox has been a forceful voice admonishing the United Methodist Church to maintain its current positions on homosexuality—that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The UMC position denies non-celibate LGBT people ordination, refuses to bless their loving relationships, and forbids its clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings.
Oh yes, it also affirms that “homosexuals are people of sacred worth.” Yeah, right. Love the sinner and hate the sin. For those of us who have put up with these kinds of self-righteous proclamations by Christian bodies, we recognize that loving the sinner and hating the sin is a lie; those who utter it are delighted that the “sin” is in evidence so that they might once again punish “the sinners.”
In ecclesial and academic environments such as these, the decision to protest is an act of faith.
We marched last week because Candler failed to keep its word. It had named itself as a place where LGBT people were welcomed on their own terms and not the terms of any one denomination. In honoring Eddie Fox, Candler revealed that it was not such a place. Our place as LGBT people was open to debate, a topic of conversation.
Dean Jan Love said this explicitly :
Those marching outside are helping to deepen this conversation at Candler. I hope you will welcome them, greet them, and have conversation with them as you leave Candler. We are delighted that the Emory University campus is a place where students can express themselves freely and where we invite each other to listen deeply to each other. Candler is proud to be a place where we encounter deeply held differences across the Christian family and seek to find the light of Christ in each other in these often tough and tender conversations. And so we welcome all of you as we welcome all of those outside. And we look forward to the intermingling of the two groups.
That is a lovely sentiment. It invites us to conversation, lots of conversation. Deep conversation. Tough and tender conversation. Conversation ad nauseum.
Those of us marching outside the ceremony are sick of conversation. We’ve been having this conversation for decades. And yet, we’ll keep having it. We’ll keep having conversations because as tired as that word is, it refers to the practice of discernment—part of the hard work of Christian community.
But the issue here is not about discernment—it concerns the non-discrimination policy of a university
Dean Love failed to acknowledge these distinctions. Those of us who marched did so because Candler decided to privilege one side of this debate when it chose to honor Eddie Fox. And what about school policy? Emory University states that it will not tolerate anything that “has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment, educational, or living environment” and “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or a student’s academic performance.”
As someone who has been part of Candler both as a student and as a professor, I know firsthand that the UMC position has exactly this kind of effect. It creates an environment where LGBT seminarians hide because they fear that district superintendents and bishops are policing their moves. It creates an environment in which professors who disagree with denominational polity perform same-sex unions in private homes but remain silent in public venues. It creates an environment in which LGBT faculty or senior staff are welcomed if they agree to abide by the unwritten rules of the glass closet: feel free to speak about LGBT inclusion as a matter of justice but don’t self-identify or risk losing your position. It creates an environment in which other faculty and staff offer private affirmations behind closed doors but keep their distance when conflict arises.
In honoring Eddie Fox, Candler’s leadership gave formal institutional assent to exactly such an environment, and in doing so they reinforce an infuriatingly condescending position: they are happy to welcome LGBT people as long as we play by their unwritten rules.
The feminist theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson sums up the smugness of this position quite well: “The liberal impulse to include everyone is precisely the “generous” impulse that appears to open the doors wide, while it continues to set the terms on which one is allowed in…”
Dean Love invited those at the ceremony that honored Eddie Fox to welcome and greet those of us who were protesting. I speak as one of those protestors in saying that expressions of welcome and greeting are nice. But “niceness” can be toxic when it is used to distract from injustice.
It’s time for Candler to quit assuming that tepid expressions of toleration are courageous and to decide if it is willing and able to accept LGBT folk without reservation so that our voices might actually be heard in these seemingly endless conversations that are part of the Church today. It’s time for Emory University to clarify the tension between its own non-discrimination policy and that of the United Methodist Church.
And when Candler decides to come down on the side of honoring denominational policy in violation of university policy, it’s time for the university to break its silence and respond.