Georgia executive committee, Mercer weigh new relationship

ATLANTA (BP)--The executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention has overwhelmingly approved a proposal to modify yet maintain the convention's relationship with Mercer University.

The committee's vote, 77-7, came during its regular meeting Sept. 9 at the Georgia Baptist Convention building in Atlanta.

Following the meeting, the proposal was also narrowly endorsed by the executive committee of Mercer's board of trustees during a closed session on a 5-4 vote.

For the proposal to take effect, Mercer officials said it would have to be approved by the 45-member board of trustees during its December meeting.

The provisions of the proposal include:

-- agreement by present Mercer trustees to have three conservative ministers and two conservative laypersons nominated as trustees by the 1997 convention nominating committee.

-- creation of a joint liaison committee consisting of Mercer and convention officials to annually nominate six trustees -- three of whom would be ministers -- for the Mercer board, beginning in 1998. The liaison committee also would discuss any issues that arise in the relationship between the convention and the school.

-- commitment by the board of trustees to "convey to its successors" that the Baptist Faith and Message should be a part of the criteria in selecting future university presidents.

-- channeling of unrestricted convention funds for Mercer through the Georgia Baptist Foundation where they would be held in trust each year until Mercer's chief accountant certifies that the funds are being used to support Georgia Baptist students, a budget step needing approval at the November meeting of the Georgia convention.

-- an invitation for the executive director of the convention to attend and participate in Mercer trustee meetings, assist in the orientation of new Mercer trustees and take part in any future searches for a university president.

-- formal acknowledgement by the convention executive committee of the ministry and financial support Mercer gives to Georgia Baptist students and churches.

-- establishment by the convention of a college relations department to act as a liaison between colleges and the convention.

The proposal came from the Mercer Relationship Study Committee appointed by the convention executive committee last year following the publication of a controversial book by Mercer University President R. Kirby Godsey.

Godsey's book, "When We Talk About God ... Let's Be Honest" (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 1996), ignited a firestorm of protest among critics who objected to such statements as "Jesus is not God," that the "Virgin Birth is more truth than fact" and that God does not abolish evil and suffering because he is unable to do so.

A related committee -- known as the Price Committee, named for its chairman, Nelson Price, pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta -- also formally presented its report to the executive committee on Godsey's theology as reflected in his book and from Godsey's responses to questions submitted by the committee.

In its written report, the Price Committee concluded Godsey's views "dramatically deviate from orthodoxy. That being true, it is our opinion that it is punctuated with heresy."

The report -- which had been published the week prior in The Christian Index, newsjournal of Georgia Baptists -- generated no discussion at the time of its presentation to the executive committee.

After the executive committee adjourned, Price held a news conference in which he called for Godsey to resign.

"Georgia Baptists want a good relationship with Mercer," Price said. "But being in the position he is in and the posture he has taken is a challenge to the relationship. Therefore I (am) suggesting that with dignity and pride he resign."

Later in the afternoon, following the meeting of the Mercer trustees' executive committee, Godsey was asked by a local reporter to respond to Price's call for his resignation.

"My own stewardship and leadership of the university would be based on other criteria," Godsey replied. "While I respect his views, I would certainly not allow those views to influence my judgment about leadership of the university."

David Hudson, chairman of the Mercer trustees' executive committee and an attorney from Augusta, Ga., said the trustee group had voted 9-0 to reaffirm Mercer's commitment to academic freedom, Godsey's leadership and his right to publish the book.

The Mercer Relationship Study Committee, during several months of deliberations and meetings with Baptist leaders and Mercer officials, developed its proposal, which was designed to continue rather than sever the relationship with Mercer, said Frank Cox, committee chairman and convention president.

"We were instructed to try to find ways to bring healing to the relationship between the convention and Mercer," said Cox, who is pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church in Atlanta. "If we could not bring healing, we were to bring restructuring to the relationship."

However, the executive committee at first approved an amendment to the Cox committee proposal that would have ended convention funding for Mercer by June 2001 unless Mercer trustees removed Godsey from office by January 1998.

Mike Everson, pastor of Second Baptist Church, Warner Robins, indicated his motion was intended to give Mercer students currently receiving financial aid as a result of convention funding time to finish their degrees, while at the same time scheduling an end to convention dollars because of Godsey's theological views.

Danny Cochran, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, Dalton, and a proponent of Everson's amendment, said he was concerned about what "we, as Georgia Baptists, are going to support -- and how does God respond to our willingness to continue financial support when (Godsey's) book has been published."

Everson's amendment was approved on a 53-42 vote but was reconsidered and defeated after an impassioned plea by J. Robert White, convention executive director and a member of both the Cox and Price committees.

"I have always believed in building relationships, not destroying them," White stated. "You've approved an amendment that is tantamount to destroying a relationship."

White said he would support whatever decision the executive committee reached, but he suggested the original proposal of the Mercer Relationship Study Committee presented a unique opportunity.

"For the first time, a channel had been developed whereby the convention could have some positive influence on who would be placed as trustees," White said of the original proposal. "This was a tremendous breakthrough and something that had never happened before in Georgia Baptist Convention life."

Following White's remarks, Jesse W. Hilton, pastor of Waco (Ga.) Baptist Church, told the group he had voted for Everson's amendment. But citing a "real conflict within myself," Hilton made a motion to reconsider the amendment.

"Let's get away from what Dr. Godsey said and make a decision ... in trying to bring about the healing of the relationship," Hilton urged.

Wayne Hamrick, pastor of Atco Baptist Church, Cartersville, spoke against reconsideration and for Everson's amendment to stand as adopted.

"I've heard through the grapevine that (the Mercer trustees) will not remove Dr. Godsey, so they're saying to us they're not going to do a thing about him," Hamrick said. "We want the school, but we want the problem to go."

In the end, executive committee members voted 49-40 to defeat Everson's amendment and then voted 77-7 to approve the proposal as originally presented.

Prior to the discussion of matters related to the convention's relationship with Mercer, the executive committee considered closing its meeting to the press except for The Christian Index.

David Stokes, pastor of Norwich Baptist Church, Brunswick, made a motion to enter executive session, citing a concern that committee members feel free to speak their minds.

Lester Cooper, pastor of Valley Hill Baptist Church, Riverdale, opposed Stokes' motion. "I don't intend to say anything today that I would be ashamed to have printed. If we're not willing to have what we say put on record, we shouldn't say it."

Stokes' motion failed on a show of hands, with perhaps two-thirds voting to keep the meeting open.

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