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Va. Baptists to weigh ties with U. of Richmond over sexual policy

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Virginia Baptists will change their 169-year-old relationship with the University of Richmond if a proposal is approved in November.
Under the plan, adopted by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board Oct. 13, the Baptist General Association of Virginia will no longer nominate trustees for the university and will phase out financial contributions to the school.
Instead the BGAV will fund a new Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, to be housed on UR’s campus and directed by Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.
The proposal was approved by UR’s board of trustees Oct. 1 and by the historical society’s executive committee Sept. 30. It will be implemented if adopted by the BGAV at its annual meeting in Richmond, Nov. 9-10.
If accepted, the proposal effectively ends governing and financial ties between UR and the BGAV, which founded the school in 1830. Those ties were strained last March, when UR trustees added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy.
Some Virginia Baptists maintained that UR’s stance, which prohibits discrimination of gays and lesbians in student, faculty and staff recruitment and promotion, was at odds with the BGAV position on homosexuality. In 1998, the BGAV “commended” to its affiliated churches a statement “affirming the biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful and unacceptable to Christians” and, at the same time, offering guidelines for expressing “Christ-like compassion for homosexual persons.”
The state association adopted a similar statement in 1993.
In response to UR’s action, the mission board’s executive committee in April named a seven-person task force to examine BGAV-UR ties. Recommendations from the panel were approved Sept. 14 by the executive committee, which then presented them to the mission board.
Since 1969, when a $50 million gift from E. Claiborne Robins Sr. was made contingent on a looser relationship between UR and Baptists, the BGAV has reduced the number of trustees it nominates to the school’s board. Currently it nominates only four trustees on UR’s 40-member board, which is self-perpetuating. It also has allocated funds — which last year totaled $230,000 — primarily for the Virginia Baptist Scholars Program, which assists students from churches affiliated with the BGAV.
Under the proposal, the BGAV will no longer nominate trustees, although those presently serving will complete their terms. About half the board’s current members are Baptists.
The financial contributions will be phased out over four years, allowing students in the Virginia Baptist Scholars Program to finish their education. As funds are freed, they will be transferred to the budget of the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.
The BGAV also will continue to provide a Baptist campus minister to UR, as it does for a variety of schools around the state.
According to the proposal, the Baptist center will “champion Baptist distinctives and Baptist heritage; … provide educational opportunities related to Baptist distinctives, history and heritage; … make available Baptist records and historic materials; and …. serve as a research center for undergraduates, scholars and local church historians.”
The center is expected to begin operations next year, when a charter is obtained from the State Corporation Commission. It will be governed by a 13-member board of directors, who will be nominated by the BGAV, the university and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. The society is expected to continue as a membership-based organization that collects and preserves historical records.
“I am excited about the establishment of the center,” said Reginald McDonough, BGAV executive director. “Baptists need a place to preserve our roots and a place to dialogue about the future of Baptist life and work. I envision the center being a think tank for the greater Baptist family.”
McDonough acknowledged that some Virginia Baptists would have preferred the center to be located elsewhere. “But what better place to have a Baptist and Christian witness than on the campus of a world-class university?” he asked. “In this location we will have an opportunity to raise the Baptist flag before thousands of the future leaders of our nation and world.”
William Cooper, president of the University of Richmond, said in a statement, “We are deeply grateful for the often sacrificial support by Baptists throughout the university’s history. We welcome the opportunity to partner with our state’s Baptist churches to create this new educational venture.
“The center will celebrate and preserve Baptist history while expanding research opportunities and programs to serve the needs and interests of Baptists today,” Cooper said.
Anderson said the proposal “represents a magnificent opportunity to provide a wider knowledge of Baptist history and to promote a better understanding of Baptist distinctives and principles. It builds upon the foundation laid by the founders and supporters of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and enlarges the mission of sharing Baptist heritage.
“If the proposal is adopted by the BGAV, I will look forward to developing the new work of the center while continuing the unique ministry of the society,” Anderson said.
Although the mission board approved the proposal with only one member voicing opposition, discussion prior to the vote reflected varied responses.
“Do the other Virginia Baptist schools state in their documents that they will not admit a non-heterosexual as a student?” asked Paul Rowles, pastor of Bowling Green (Va.) Baptist Church. “If not, why is UR being singled out? Will we embark on a purge of the other schools?”
But William Payne of Alexandria, Va., maintained the proposal does not go far enough in addressing homosexuality. “The issue is, where do we stand on homosexuality?” he said. “If we don’t take a stronger position, we will lose more churches [from the BGAV]. … Virginia Baptists appear to be halting between two opinions.” Payne, a member of First Baptist Church in Alexandria, said the board should consider asking the BGAV-nominated trustees at UR to resign and to relocate the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.
Bill Wilson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, said the proposal pleased him. “If we just pulled the plug [on the BGAV-UR relationship] we would have come across as other Baptist groups have in their relations to institutions. This shows there doesn’t have to be a win-lose situation,” said Wilson, a UR trustee.
In presenting the proposal, the task force’s chair, Margaret Wayland of Danville, said the group had committed itself to affirming the 1993 BGAV statement regarding homosexual behavior; recognizing the significant historical relationship between the BGAV and UR; and realizing that the changing relationship between the two entities needed to be addressed in a creative way.
Wayland, a former president of both the BGAV and Virginia Woman’s Missionary Union, said the task force held meetings with UR President William Cooper, UR trustees nominated by the BGAV and Anderson of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.
“The focus of discussions … was how could Virginia Baptists act as keepers of the faith and also preserve the rich heritage of Baptists in Virginia, who have through the years been supportive or undergirding the whole person — body, mind and soul,” said Wayland, who is a graduate of UR. “Virginia Baptists already have access to one of the largest collections of Baptist historical records and memorabilia in the world preserved by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society … . To this strength the task force sought to find a creative, innovative relationship that would strengthen Baptist identity and continue to carefully preserve the great heritage of Baptists. The task force envisioned a partnership which could embrace not only the preservation of Baptist history and studies but could also provide a forum for dialogue about the future of Baptists.”
Wayland said the task force solicited comments from all Virginia Baptists and that many responded. Among those was the Virginia Chapter of the Alliance of Baptists, the only comments to the task force which also were sent to the state Baptist paper, the Religious Herald.
“Virginia Baptists will continue to hold a variety of perspectives on homosexuality,” noted the Alliance’s statement. “… Will agreement on the role of gays and lesbians in church and society become a test of fellowship in the BGAV? The discussion surrounding the University of Richmond, we believe, has so far assumed the answer should be ‘yes.’ We suggest the proper answer is ‘no.’ …
“If Virginia Baptists are willing to allow differences over homosexuality to threaten this longstanding relationship, is any Baptist university, partner institution, church or individual secure? … Our energy will be spent making certain that decisions by every partner institution, perhaps every congregation, will not offend any significant number of our members.”

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  • Robert Dilday