Durham County

How will Duke Divinity respond to recent LGBT protest? Task force sets out to decide.

Duke Divinity School dean Elaine Heath has formed a special task force to address "gender and sexuality issues" raised by a recent protest. Pictured is the Divinity School building on Duke's West Campus near Duke Chapel.
Duke Divinity School dean Elaine Heath has formed a special task force to address "gender and sexuality issues" raised by a recent protest. Pictured is the Divinity School building on Duke's West Campus near Duke Chapel.

A February protest has spurred the creation of a special task force within the Duke Divinity School to examine the complaints it brought to light about the status of gay, lesbian and transgender students at the United Methodist Church-affiliated seminary.

Divinity School dean Elaine Heath asked three professors and a staff member to serve on the group, which will look at worries about curriculum, "student affairs and student conduct," field training and the orientation of new students.

Heath said the move recognizes that "some of our students have raised concerns that in many ways echo the difficulties Christian institutions are facing in a rapidly changing world."

It follows the end-of-February protest that saw a number of students interrupt the dean's annual state-of-the-school speech to protest the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender students at the school and demand concessions affecting scholarships, , internships, curriculum and faculty hiring.

Professor Sujin Pak, a Methodist layperson and specialist in the history of Christianity in Europe, will chair the task force. The other faculty members on it are professors Douglas Campbell, a New Testament scholar and analyst of the writings of Saint Paul, and Mary McClintock Fulkerson, a feminist theologian.

Rounding out the group is Christine Pesetski, a longtime Duke University assistant dean of students who in 2016 joined the Divinity School staff as its senior director for academic programs and registrar.

The group is supposed to identify the main issues, meet with students and eventually work with Heath to come up with a set of recommended responses.

Its interaction with students is already underway, as Pak invited leaders of the recent protest to meet on March 8 with the Divinity School's Board of Visitors, an advisory group that includes alumni, church and business leaders.

That encounter, at least in the eyes of protest leaders, didn't go especially well.

"To be honest, we were met with a decent amount of hostility," said Madeline Reyes, a spokesperson for the protesters who added that nonetheless, "there were a few sympathetic ears in the room."

Regardless of their specific demands, the students' fundamental complaint, as Reyes has explained it, is that in the Divinity School "a lot of professors are openly non-affirming" of LGBTQ students despite the school's and Duke's promises of inclusion and non-discrimination.

To the protesters, former dean Richard Hays, a New Testament scholar still on faculty, highlighted the problem in 2014 when he interrupted a fall-semester orientation event to tell students they "need to be aware" of Methodist doctrine that among other things bars the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

Trouble is, despite its United Methodist affiliation the Duke Divinity School bills itself as an ecumenical institution that admits students and hires professors from many other faiths.

By the school's own count, United Methodists are a minority of its students even while constituting the largest single group of them. As of 2017, 37 percent of the students were United Methodist. Another 3 percent come from other "Wesleyan traditions."

Duke Divinity, a seminary that offers both master's and doctoral degrees, channels graduates into ministry jobs not just in the Methodist church but in denominations like the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ that welcome gays in the ministry.

While its doctrine is clear, there's plenty of dissent in the United Methodist Church about the question of gay and lesbian clergy. That's sparked several fights over the status of openly gay ministers.

Methodist leaders are scheduled to meet in early 2019 to debate the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. At Duke Divinity, at least some professors fear the possibility of a schism among Methodists, or other developments that could cost the school the roughly $2 million a year the church now donates to it.

But while the Methodist Church is "in a difficult moment right now," Reyes said she and most of the people she knows are not Methodists and are looking to the Divinity School to live up to its ecumenical ideal. "It's sort of an advertising issue," she said.

More broadly, the protest is "certainly a reaction to this culture where we're still debating whether or not our existences are even acceptable, where most of us would like to be doing more liberating work," she said.

The immediate spark for February's protest was a fall-semester decision by the school's theology faculty that went against the idea of offering a course on "queer theology" this semester.

Reyes abandoned and apologized for a claim that the course proposal fell a vote short of adoption. The reality, as documented in an email to the students from professor Curtis Freeman, the theology division's chairman, was that professors met in November and felt there "simply was not time" to get the course through the normal review process.

He also noted that the school has offered courses on "gender and sexuality" in the past, including ones under Fulkerson and professor Anathea Portier-Young. Going forward, it's "committed to expanding offerings on related topics as staffing and resources permit" and is looking at a couple of possibilities in 2019.

Reyes said the timing point didn't impress the protesters because they think the school and the division's added courses at the last minute for other professors. And the prior offerings from Fulkerson and Portier-Young, while "not bad courses," aren't substitutes for the one the students have asked for, she said.

Protest leaders believe there's need for a course that starts from the proposition that "being queer or LGBT is acceptable," rather than from a position of "reconciling being LBGT with theology or providing pastoral care to to people who are LGBT," Reyes said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg