SPU’s Affiliation

Any AFMEI [American Free Methodist Educational Institutions] institution that alters their hiring policy to permit the hiring of individuals living a lifestyle inconsistent with the Free Methodist Book of Discipline’s teachings on sexual purity will be considered to have disaffiliated with the denomination and will not be considered for any level of affiliation as long as this hiring policy is in place.

Free Methodist Church Board of Administration, quoted in an email from SPU’s student government sent May 18, 2022

After careful consideration of multiple and complex concerns, the Board of Trustees has
reached the decision to retain Seattle Pacific University’s current Employee Lifestyle
Expectations regarding sexual conduct. . . .

Seattle Pacific remains committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for undergraduate and
graduate students, welcoming and supporting each student — including our LGBTQIA+
students — to support their academic pursuits, faith journeys, and life together. To that end,
we continue to strive to create a community where all receive support to thrive and to
belong.

SPU Board of Trustees email, “Board of Trustees reaches decision on Employee Lifestyle Expectations,” May 23, 2022

As a faculty member, I can tell you that the faculty will not be different tomorrow because of the Board’s decision; that you will be welcome in our classrooms and in our offices, and in our hearts, and that will not change. And it will not change that we will not give up. We do not have the right to give up, because you belong to us. I don’t know if you like that, but we claim you as ours. And we will do everything we can to do right by you.

a speech from Dr. Kevin Neuhouser to a rally against the Board’s decision on May 24, 2022; from @engaygetheculture on Instagram

Recent statements from the Free Methodist Church Board of Administration and SPU’s Board of Trustees, quoted above, confirm what I have heard for about half a year, which is that members of SPU’s board would rather let SPU die than hire LGBTQ people as faculty and change their Statement on Human Sexuality. To SPU’s board and to the Free Methodist Church, homosexuality, transness, gayness, queerness, lesbianism, nonbinaryness, etc. are states of living death. To admit open gay, queer, and trans people into positions of authority would be to allow a virus infect the corporate body.

For more than a millennium, Christians have conceived of sexual deviance as a particularly contagious kind of sin threatening the church, so this is no surprise. Punishments for these sins have varied from confession and absolution to hanging and burning to outing and discrediting to withholding sacraments to bullying and “exgay” therapy to the barring of dykes and fags from the priesthood and professorate. Due to the threat of queer contagion – more recently spoken of as recruitment and grooming – Christians hold a special fear of allowing queer people into positions of authority over children and the youth.

So, the Board’s refusal to hire gays and queers does indeed stem from a long Christian tradition, one of Christians portraying us as threats to children and youth. (See Mark D. Jordan’s books The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology and Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk About Homosexuality.) It is impossible to disentangle their insistence on keeping SPU’s discriminatory hiring policies from this Christian tradition, especially in this moment in which the right is passing legislation to keep discussion of gayness out of primary schools and to criminalize being trans. It is a systematic attempt to kill queerness through silence, and SPU’s trustees are prayerfully playing their part, tepidly taking their places next to Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Ron DeSantis.

The irony here is twofold.

  1. Queerness spreads in silence, shadows, under rocks, in margins, and in the bushes. Attempts to prohibit the spread of queers and queerness within the church through keeping us out of education and off of syllabi will always, always fail. What such attempts succeed at is making life more lonely and miserable for young LGBTQ people, leading to increased rates of depression and suicide amongst the very children and youth homophobes claim they are protecting.
  2. The Board says their refusal to hire LGBTQ people is consistent with a commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

This second point raises a further irony. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) – as functioning in this statement – are not Christian terms. They are terms of liberal inclusion by which institutions incorporate and regulate difference without fundamentally changing the power structures of the institution. In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed has described statements such as this one by the Board as “non-performatives”, meaning that they do the very opposite of what they state. She writes, naming such commitments “can be a way of not bringing something into effect” (117). Here, naming the Board’s commitment to DEI is a way of not bringing into effect the space of thriving and belonging they claim to desire. In The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, Roderick Ferguson has historicized the way American universities in the 20th century began “producing formulas for the incorporation rather than the absolute repudiation of difference, all the while refining and perfecting its practices of exclusion and regulation” (12). [See also Linn Tonstad’s Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics for how the logics of inclusion play out in the church and potential ways beyond it. For any SPUers wanting something to read while you occupy Demaray, if interested, send me an email and I’ll send some PDFs of some chapters!]

SPU’s Board is exercising an old homophobia in Christianized DEI drag, a deified DIY DEI, and based on the dispatches I see on Instagram, articles in the Falcon, and conversations I’ve had, SPU’s students and faculty are not buying it. Queer SPU students’ use of memes has been criticized by a professor involved in the Board’s LGBTQIA+ Work Group, but a number of the memes I’ve seen reflect a commitment to the liberatory practice of truth telling. And one truth the students are telling with clarity and precision, even through memes, is that a majority of SPU’s board members are homophobes.

Queer Christians seeking acceptance in the church and its institutions are often forced to tiptoe around homophobia. Or they are wooed and romanced by the promise of minor concessions into believing that they will be rewarded for not calling their oppressors what they are. And people like these Board Members deeply desire to be seen as loving Christians, caught tragically in the grip of Truth – not homophobic, just prayerfully deliberating something that is out of their hands. What is exhilarating about the state of resistance at SPU is not only the broad consensus between students, faculty, administration, and alumni that the Board’s Truth is in fact False – which is, by the way, extraordinarily heartening. What is exhilarating is that the students know full well that they will not be rewarded for playing into the Board’s charade of DEIification. The ground of contestation has now shifted: no longer can the fantasy of changing the Board’s heart provide any hope or sustenance for action; now, as posed by the Free Methodist Church’s Board of Administration, the matter is one of affiliation or disaffiliation.

Talking about the church is always tricky, because there is a) whatever one can say about the church as the Body of Christ, the church as a metaphysical, eucharistic, symbolic, ontological – what have you – institution, but in any given situation, there is also always b) the specific manifestation or manifestations of that body. In the case of SPU, there is the Christian Church as Body of Christ, there is the Free Methodist Church, and there are the various Christian traditions to which SPU faculty, students, administration, and alumni belong – all of which are part of the Christian Church as Body of Christ.

I attended SPU for four years and learned absolutely nothing about the Free Methodist Church – it wasn’t emphasized at any part of my education, which is intentional, as the model of education SPU has settled on is decidedly ecumenical. I did value the local Free Methodist Church that partners with SPU. The music department held performances and recitals there. Faculty held going away parties there. Students got married there. When the June 5th shooting occurred, the church opened its doors to hold our grieving community, and itself not far from the sight of the shooting, it truly shared in our grief. It held services, and it opened up spaces for students to study together. That was an incidence of a particular church being the Body of Christ and being a family.

The language of family and affiliation is important to SPU and to the church broadly. But there are two ideas of church-as-family at play in this dispute between the Boards and everyone else. The Free Methodist denominational leadership and SPU’s Board are modeling one version: a patriarchal model in which authority or the authority figure is the inheritor and guarantor of tradition who must defend tradition and the family from dangers like queer people. SPU’s two BoardFathers have handed down an ultimatum: affiliate or disaffiliate with the Free Methodist Church. “Respect our authority or leave.” This is the Boards’ gospel.

This model is the church as heterosexual family. It understands the purpose of Christian tradition as safeguarding a vision of the world rooted in the procreative sex between heterosexual, cisgender married men and women. The church preserves the heterosexual nuclear family; the heterosexual nuclear family reproduces the church. For straight cis people, the good news is inheritance of the church. For all others, the good news is “get your faggot ass out of my house.” This model of church has lost the eschatological element of Christian faith. The imaginable future is not the Kingdom of Heaven but grandchildren. It has made itself amenable (and has indeed produced) white Christian nationalism, although white people are not the only ones invested in it. Even if the Board would distance itself from white Christian nationalism, both are invested in sexuality as the site where the continuation of a specific cultural heritage is guaranteed, thus necessitating sexual purity. The logic is the same.

The second model is one displayed by Dr. Kevin Neuhouser in his megaphoned words to protesters a week ago. Speaking on behalf of the faculty, he said, “We do not have the right to give up, because you belong to us. I don’t know if you like that, but we claim you as ours. And we will do everything we can to do right by you.” Dr. Neuhouser – who I had as a professor a decade ago now – has been an advocate for queer students on campus for a long time. His “I don’t know if you like that” – which got the crowd laughing – may be a recognition that the language of belonging and claiming might feel imposing to some queer people, as those words have been so abused by Christians (see, again, the statement from SPU’s Board). But what he and other faculty and staff members have been modeling for years now (take for example this 2011 letter of SPU faculty support for queer students following then President Phil Eaton’s refusal to let Haven meet on campus) is how to be the church as a community of love within and against institutional and ecclesial strictures against love. How to be in solidarity. This is straining for truer relation within and against a context of exploitation, which – to be clear – is what the Board is defending in taking queer students’ money while refusing to hire queer professors.

What I hear in Dr. Neuhouser’s statement is something like the enactment of a new kind of family. The text I’m currently reading as I study for my second comprehensive exam in my theology doctoral program is John Zizioulas’s Being As Communion. Zizioulas makes a distinction between biological and ecclesial understandings of personhood, which he speaks of using the word hypostasis. Drawing on 1 Peter 1, he talks about new life in baptism: “As the conception and birth of a [person] constitute [their] biological hypostasis, so baptism leads to a new mode of existence, to a regeneration [], and consequently to a new ‘hypostasis'” (53). Baptism means freedom “from the relationship created by [one’s] biological identity. This means that henceforth [one] can love not because the laws of biology oblige [one] to do so… but unconstrained by the natural laws” (57). This approach to nature could be leveraged into a broader argument about the ok-ness of gay sex, but that’s not the argument I’m making. For Zizioulas, being free from biology means that one is free from exercising exclusion against others. Life in the church is marked by the eucharist, which, he says, “is first of all an assembly [], a community, a network of relations, in which [one] ‘subsists’ in a manner different from the biological as a member of a body which transcends every exclusiveness of a biological or social kind” (60). The church, if understandable as a family at all, is a different kind of family: one not bound by the logics of biology and reproduction, but rather, one in which we, all the baptized, are made siblings in Christ.

The Free Methodists and SPU’s Board of Trustees have made clear that the inclusion of LGBTQ people is not an option – their lip service to the thriving and belonging of gay/queer students is as laughable as it insulting. So, we turn again to what they do offer: the options the Free Methodist Church has given the faculty, administration, and students of SPU are affiliation with the FMC and subordination of LGBTQ students and faculty or disaffiliation from the FMC and the hiring of openly LGBTQ people.

SPU’s faculty is already vastly ecumenical, with all kinds of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox professors, students, and staff members. They represent vastly different Christian views on baptism, the eucharist/communion, the trinity, abortion, sex within heterosexual marriage, gay marriage and relationships, etc. Students come from faith traditions besides Christianity and no faith tradition at all. So in one sense, disaffiliation with the Free Methodists would be a simple recognition of the school SPU already is. In another sense, it would be an arduous and difficult logistical happening, a very important element of this moment that I am not equipped to even begin considering here!

Whether or not disaffiliation is a possibility, questions to consider are: What is new life in Christ? What is the affiliation to which Jesus calls us? What is the church? Who and whose is the church? If the Boards’ gospel of “no gays or get out” isn’t compelling today, what is compelling?

Disaffiliation from the Free Methodists may be painful for many SPUers, but what is clear to me – and has been clear to me for years – is that SPU’s faculty have been seized by a profound love for their students. They are aware of their fundamental, baptismal affiliation with LGBTQ students and colleagues. And it is clear that SPU’s Board of Trustees has nothing meaningful to say to that powerful affiliation. They don’t understand it, because they are removed from all aspects of day-to-day life on campus.

A professor once told me that Seattle Pacific may have a unique place and role to play within the kingdom. It is well situated within the landscape of US-American evangelicalism. And this doesn’t sound like dreaming to me – I agree. As more and more Christians become convinced that gay and trans people ought to be able to hold positions of leadership in church spaces, that we ought to be able to teach, and that students – queers and nonqueers alike – would benefit from our teaching, there will be more and more Christians, including evangelicals, who will be looking for Christian universities that have the faculties (in both senses of the word) to think well about how the gospel is lived out in and reinterpreted in present circumstances.

What would it look like to start imagining Christian education from within the space of deep affiliation between SPU’s faculty and its queer students? A couple of obvious changes would be the removal of the Board, yes, the hiring of gay/queer people, and the elimination of the Statement of Human Sexuality. But that may just be a start. What kind of prayer, worship, theology, life together, could God be calling this small pocket of the kingdom toward? SPU is being baptized by fire. May it become more of what it already is.

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