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Va. association, Averett move toward accord on funding, ministry

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)—The Baptist General Association of Virginia will release to Averett University a portion of funds withheld last year in a dispute with the school over biblical authority and homosexuality.

But the remainder of the funds allocated in the current fiscal year to the BGAV-affiliated school in Danville will remain escrowed until this fall, when details of a proposed bivocational pastor training program to be overseen by Averett will be released.

During their April 20-21 meeting in Richmond, members of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board agreed to release only $180,000 — out of more than $350,000 escrowed by the BGAV last fall — to fulfill scholarship obligations to Baptist students at Averett.

Averett drew the ire of many Virginia Baptists last August when the chair of its religion department wrote an article in a Danville newspaper endorsing the action of the Episcopal Church to ordain an openly homosexual bishop and criticizing a literal method of interpreting the Bible. In September, John Shelby Spong, a controversial Episcopal bishop, lectured on Averett’s campus, reportedly saying that the God revealed in a literal reading of Scripture is “immoral” and “unbelievable.”

In response, the BGAV mission board’s executive committee in September expressed its “strong dismay and disagreement.” In November, messengers at the BGAV’s annual meeting adopted a recommendation of their budget committee and escrowed the allocation they would have given to Averett in the state association’s 2003-04 budget “until such time as the [BGAV] covenant committee … can reach an agreement with the university as to its future relationship” with the BGAV.

The Averett dispute arose just as the BGAV is in the process of developing covenants with each of its ministry partners, including the six colleges and academies with historic ties to the state convention. The covenants aim to identify where the values and mission of the partners overlap those of the BGAV, and to specify shared ministries “by which this covenant relationship is lived out.”

Earlier in the April 20-21 mission board meeting, a covenant of shared values was approved with Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, one of three secondary schools with historic ties to the BGAV.

In keeping with the BGAV’s November directive, the mission board approved a covenant of shared values before releasing the scholarship funds to Averett. The covenant lists as shared values religious liberty, separation of church and state, the autonomy of the local church and university, respect for all persons, intellectual integrity, a cooperative spirit, compassion for all people and responsiveness to a changing world.

However, the BGAV’s covenant committee had not yet formulated a “covenant of shared ministry.” That may be determined by the results of the bivocational pastor training program study, which if approved could be the vehicle that maintains the 144-year-old ties between the BGAV and Averett.

In a supporting document adopted by the mission board along with the funding motion, members said, “We are … not prepared to terminate our historic relationship with Averett University because of the unfortunate statements of one tenured professor. Working with Averett, we have identified a new, independent program which we believe could be beneficial to both Averett and the BGAV in the area of Baptist education for bivocational pastors….”

A study of the proposed program will be undertaken by representatives of both the mission board and Averett.

The supporting document said the program “shall be totally independent of the religion department of the university, and outside the influence or participation of any current professor in the religion department.”

According to the document, topics to be taught might include church management, ordinances, preaching and theology, and classes would be offered both on the Danville campus and the school’s satellite campuses.

An interim report providing “a detailed program design” is to be presented no later than the mission board’s October meeting.

In the supporting document, the mission board also reiterated the BGAV’s “clearly stated … position that homosexual behavior is unacceptable for Christians, as mandated in Scripture. The BGAV has made clear its dismay with the printed statements of an Averett religion professor on these topics…. We are not prepared to compromise on these issues of great importance to us.”

John Upton, executive director of the BGAV, said, “The Virginia Baptist Mission Board response this past week states clearly Virginia Baptists’ convictions regarding homosexuality while maintaining a sense of fairness and appropriateness in not judging an entire school based on the ill-advised statements of a single religion professor.”

Richard Pfau, Averett’s president, told the BGAV’s newsjournal, the Religious Herald, he was “pleased by an agreement that preserves the BGAV’s principles and which preserves Averett’s principles.”

A statement released by the university said Averett is “not prepared to terminate our historic relationship with the Baptist General Association of Virginia because the association has expressed its disagreement with the public statements of an Averett faculty member. … We look forward to continuing the historic relationship while maintaining the university’s focus on intellectual inquiry.”

    About the Author

  • Robert Dilday