Ties between the Baptist General Association of Virginia and Averett University, already strained from a dispute last year over homosexuality, suffered another setback when one of the school's student organizations hosted a gay pride week on campus Feb. 21-26.
The series of events were sponsored by Averett's Gay/Straight Alliance, not the school, said Richard Pfau, president of the Danville, Va., university. But he added that the Alliance, which was formed last fall, is a recognized student organization whose administrative advisor is the dean of students, Bob Perkins.
“There was no official university endorsement,” said Pfau. “I learned about it on the first day by reading it in the student newspaper.”
Members of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board's executive committee, which received incomplete details during a meeting March 8, responded quickly. “Virginia Baptists are clear on this issue [homosexuality],” they said. “We have been hearing details. And we will investigate and see what the proper response should be.”
John Upton, executive director of the Mission Board, said he and three members of the executive committee have scheduled a meeting March 17 with Pfau to discuss the issue.
Pfau said the gay pride week activities were “student run” and “not well attended or well publicized.” Among the events were forums with an attorney familiar with legal issues affecting gays and with representatives of a national advocacy group called Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbian and Gays.
Also during the week, members of the GSA asked students to sign a petition requesting Averett's administration to add sexual orientation to other categories in its non-discrimination policy. Pfau said he has not seen the petition and does not know how many students signed it.
The gay pride events come three months after the BGAV — whose ties to Averett reach back to the school's founding in 1854 — had apparently settled a dispute over homosexuality and biblical authority.
Last December the Virginia Baptist Mission Board adopted a proposal by Averett to provide practical church training and theological education to ministers and laity in Southwest Virginia. The board funded the new project with money originally allocated to Averett but escrowed in 2003, when an article by an Averett religion professor endorsing the ordination of an openly gay Episcopal bishop and comments on campus by another Episcopal bishop disparaging a literal interpretation of Scripture drew the ire of some Virginia Baptists. The BGAV authorized the Mission Board to withhold the money until it believed a satisfactory relationship with Averett had been arranged. Board leaders said the educational initiative approved in December, which will operate without involvement from Averett's faculty, satisfied that requirement.
The gay pride week events may reopen a discussion of BGAV-Averett ties, however.
Pfau said the GSA students did not need to seek administrative permission to sponsor a week of activities and so are not subject to any disciplinary action. However, he said he is considering a review of the process by which student organizations receive official recognition.
Currently, the director of student activities approves an organization after it has drawn up a constitution and purpose statement and its officers have attended leadership training events.
“It's a rather informal process,” Pfau said. “It may need broader administrative involvement.
“That doesn't mean the GSA wouldn't have been approved [under a different system],” he added. “It just means we need to look again at the approval process.”
Robert Dilday is interim editor of the Religious Herald.