RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) — Virginia Baptists will be asked to withhold about $350,000 they planned to contribute to Averett University next year until a dispute over homosexuality and biblical interpretation can be resolved.
The Baptist General Association of Virginia's budget committee has amended its 2004 budget recommendation, asking messengers at the BGAV's annual meeting in November to escrow Averett's allocation “until such time as the [BGAV] covenant committee … can reach an agreement with the university as to its future relationship” with the BGAV.
The budget committee is recommending the money be released to Averett in April 2004 if a “resolution of our differences can be achieved by that time.” Otherwise, the budget committee will propose at the BGAV annual meeting in November 2004 a reallocation of the money.
The 144-year-old Averett has longstanding ties with the BGAV. Last year the BGAV contributed about $450,000 to the university, most of it for scholarships for students from churches affiliated with the BGAV. The state association nominates about one fourth of Averett's trustees.
But the Danville, Va., university drew the ire of some Virginia Baptists in August when John Laughlin, chair of its religion department, wrote an article in a local newspaper endorsing the recent action of the Episcopal Church to ordain an openly homosexual bishop and criticizing a literal method of interpreting the Bible. In September, John Shelby Spong, a controversial retired Episcopal bishop, lectured on Averett's campus, reportedly saying that the God who is revealed in a literal reading of Scripture is “immoral” and “unbelievable.”
The comments are “contrary to stated core values of Virginia Baptists,” said John Upton, BGAV excutive director.
The Virginia Baptist Mission Board's executive committee sharply rebuked Averett Sept. 9, declaring, “We … express our strong dismay and disagreement at the tone and content of public comments by Dr. Laughlin on homosexuality and the nature of Scripture, which were published in the Danville Register and Bee … . Furthermore, we are disappointed in Averett University's decision to host an appearance by Bishop John Shelby Spong to speak to the community and students.”
In a resolution adopted Oct. 24, Averett's board of trustees expressed regret at “any perception that Averett University has diverged from its commitment to being Virginia's flagship Christian university.”
But it added, “The board continues to feel strongly that the individual views of any single member of the academic community are the views of that individual alone and neither speak for nor reflect the views and values of the faculty, administration, board of trustees or Averett University.”
The trustees also reaffirmed the school's mission statement, which describes Averett as an institution affiliated with the BGAV that “takes seriously its Christian heritage and values and its commitment to intellectual inquiry and excellence in all aspects of college life. … In all its programs Averett stresses … an atmosphere where both academic and religious freedom are valued. … Averett is a community which values cultural, individual and racial diversity.”
Members of the BGAV budget committee said they are recommending the university's money be escrowed to allow for “a reasoned response to [Averett's] resolution.”
In the proposed 2004 budget unveiled Oct. 7, Averett would receive between $321,513 and $350,741, depending on the giving track through which a church contributes. If the escrow recommendation is adopted, the Averett line item would not be deleted. The money would be held until an agreement between the university and the BGAV is approved, or reallocated if no agreement is reached.
The BGAV is seeking “covenant agreements” with each of its ministry partners, including the three colleges with which it historically has related. The covenant committee working with Averett had not completed its task when this dispute arose.