Averett stance on separation from Va. association not disclosed

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--Trustees of Averett University have acknowledged Virginia Baptists’ approval of a jointly developed statement that would dissolve century-and-a-half-old ties between the university and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

The joint statement was developed March 17 in an attempt to resolve disagreements between the BGAV and Averett over homosexuality the past two years -- most recently students' observance of a gay pride week on campus.

But Averett’s trustees, who met April 15, have not disclosed what action they took on the statement, which was written by Virginia Baptist leaders and Averett officials with the intention of presenting it to their respective governing boards.

Trustees went into executive session to consider the statement, Averett President Richard Pfau said, noting, “It would be inappropriate for me to discuss it.”

The statement, drafted by leaders of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board and by Pfau and the chair of Averett’s board of trustees, noted: “Because of our current differences, we now resolve to walk separate paths ... recognizing that these paths may join again at a future time.”

The statement stipulates that the covenant between the BGAV and Averett will be dissolved and that the BGAV will end its long practice of nominating a portion of Averett’s board of trustees.

The statement also gives sole ownership to the BGAV of a new theological training school in Roanoke, which previously was administered in cooperation with Averett and which was the only recipient of Virginia Baptist funding to Averett. And it commits both the BGAV and Averett to support of the Baptist Student Union on campus.

The Virginia Baptist Mission Board, the executive arm of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, discussed the joint statement in open session April 6 and overwhelmingly approved it

However, Averett’s trustees released a brief statement following their closed meeting April 15:

“We recognize and respect the decision of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Averett maintains its commitment to being an autonomous flagship Christian university. The board and the president will develop guidelines to insure that Averett continues to move in that direction. Our 146-year relationship with the Baptist General Association will continue to be enriched through the strong Baptist Student Union.”

The trustee statement implies that Averett agrees to end the 2004 covenant with the BGAV but hints at a desire to maintain some sort of relationship.

“We entered into this process with a mutual understanding and a jointly crafted statement that both of our organizations could evaluate and come to resolution on,” BGAV Executive Director John Upton said. “We are limited in making a statement about the trustees’ action as they called themselves into an executive session to consider the statement and therefore we are uncertain of their actions.

“Averett’s future actions implementing Christian guidelines and standards, consistent with traditional Virginia Baptist values and norms, may allow the BGAV and Averett to rejoin paths at some point in time," said Upton, an Averett graduate. "We welcome Averett’s efforts to reclaim its heritage as a Virginia Baptist university.”

Upton added, “We are asking our Virginia Baptist family to pray for Averett’s board leadership and its administration as a result of their decision to develop guidelines for the university’s future direction.”

Upton said Averett officials have told him they have agreed to give the BGAV complete ownership of the theological training school in Roanoke -- the Southwest Virginia Christian Leadership Network -- which was created last year in consultation with Averett in an attempt to resolve an earlier disagreement over homosexuality. He said they also agree that the BGAV will no longer appoint Averett trustees.

Upton and other Virginia Baptist leaders say they regard the mission board’s action on April 6 as decisive unless they receive a new proposal from Averett.

Pfau told the Religious Herald, the BGAV’s newsjournal, that he didn’t think “the final word” has been written on the BGAV-Averett relationship, though he didn’t indicate a proposal from the board was imminent.

He emphasized that the university’s Baptist ties will continue through its support of the Baptist Student Union on campus, for which it provides office space and some administrative assistance.

Pfau said he recognized that such ties were no different from the relationship the BGAV has to other schools -- including many state-funded ones -- which also have BSUs. But he maintained that the BSU plays a more significant role at Averett than on other campuses.

“The BSU has been a vital center for the Averett community,” he said. “It is one of the largest student organizations on campus and often is the organization of choice for student leaders. It is something that Averett alumni remember more readily than other organizations.... It is at the heart of who Averett is.”

Last year, in response to an earlier disagreement over homosexuality, the BGAV redirected its annual financial allocation to Averett -- in recent years totalling about $350,000 -- to the new theological education initiative in Roanoke.

In 1993 the BGAV adopted a resolution -- now regarded as part of the state association’s “core values” -- which affirms “the biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful and unacceptable for Christians.”

Averett’s Pfau told the Roanoke Times on April 7, “What we've recognized is that the [BGAV] has a set of core values and there’s no reason why they should compromise those. Likewise, Averett has a set of core values,” about academic inquiry, for instance, “and unfortunately at this point in time, they're not compatible.”

The national debate over sexuality issues left both university and Baptist leaders with “a sense that we’re caught up in something none of us have figured out how to resolve,” Pfau told the Roanoke paper.

Averett, affiliated with the BGAV since the school’s founding in 1859, drew the ire of some Virginia Baptists in the fall of 2003 when the chair of its religion department wrote an article published in a Danville newspaper endorsing the ordination of an openly gay Episcopal bishop. At about the same time, John Shelby Spong, a controversial retired Episcopal bishop, delivered two lectures on campus, during which he reportedly said the God revealed in a literal reading of the Bible is “immoral” and “unbelievable.”

In response the BGAV escrowed funds allocated to the school and last December, in consultation with Averett, used the money to create the Southwest Virginia Christian Leadership Network to train ministers and laypeople in the mountainous region west of Roanoke. The network was to operate directly under Averett’s president’s office and would not draw its teachers from Averett’s faculty. The agreement appeared to open the way for the BGAV to maintain its ties with the school.

However, Virginia Baptist leaders’ confidence in the agreement was shaken in March when they learned the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance hosted a gay pride week on campus in February.

Though Pfau said the series of events was not endorsed by the school, he acknowledged the Gay/Straight Alliance is a recognized student organization whose administrative adviser is the dean of students.

Upton and Pfau met March 17 to discuss the issue. Also attending the meeting were Joe Vipperman, chair of Averett’s board of trustees; BGAV President Richard Smith; the BGAV first vice president, Bert Browning; BGAV treasurer Eddie Stratton; and David Shelton, a member of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the leaders drafted the joint statement but agreed not to release its content until it was presented to their respective governing boards.

While the statement holds out the possibility that the BGAV’s and Averett’s “paths might join again at a future time,” Upton said Averett would have to take “decisive action” to retain Virginia Baptist ties.

Pfau told the Roanoke Times at the time that he believes Averett’s heritage “points toward remaining Baptist” in orientation.

The school currently requires a few religion courses of all graduates, Pfau said, “but I am not sure we have a religion requirement because we are Baptist.... We’re not indoctrinating students with a particular set of beliefs and values,” he said, “but teaching them to think for themselves, a great Baptist tradition.”

The full text of the joint statement reads:

“We honor one another’s integrity, share appreciation for each other’s missions and recognize and celebrate 145 years of shared ministry. We join in anticipating great promise for the jointly developed Southwest Virginia Christian Leadership Network.

“Because of our current differences, we now resolve to walk separate paths with blessings on one another, recognizing that these paths may join again at a future time.

“As a result of walking separate paths, we agree that:

“-- The covenant of April 2004 is dissolved,

“-- Averett will return unused funds released by the BGAV for the Southwest Virginia Christian Leadership Network, and the BGAV will assume responsibility for this important program,

“-- The BGAV will no longer recommend trustees for Averett’s board and

“-- The BGAV and Averett will join in supporting an active and vigorous Baptist Student Union at Averett.”


Adapted from reporting by Robert Dilday, interim editor of the Religious Herald, on the Web at www.religiousherald.org.

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