LGBTs & Western Evangelical Quakers: A Reflection
Stephen Angell is Associate Editor of the journal Quaker Theology, and in his day job Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion. He wrote an extensive report for the journal’s current issue on the ongoing controversies over LGBT issues at George Fox University and in Northwest Yearly Meeting. This struggle has resulted in the expulsion of one Meeting and loud protests from several others, and many individual Friends there.
Based in Indiana, Steve reported extensively on the recent schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting. But a major project centered in Oregon, Washington & Idaho was not on his agenda when last summer opened. In the first part of this conversation, we look at how he came to report on how an evangelical Quaker college dealt with a transgender student.
In the second part of this interview, Steve will look at a parallel and somewhat overlapping struggle in Northwest Yearly Meeting,
Interview with Steve Angell – PART ONE
[Chuck Fager]CEF: Steve, tell us about how you were drawn to write in Quaker Theology #27 about the events at George Fox University in Newborn, Oregon, & Northwest Yearly Meeting (hereafter GFU and NWYM) this past year.
ANGELL: In June 2015 I went out to Newberg, Oregon, and George Fox University for the annual conference of the Friends Association of Higher Education. I enjoy visiting GFU; and this time the hospitality for FAHE attendees was terrific. For example, the van I rode from the airport did some sightseeing at spectacular Multnomah Falls before arriving at campus.
I had heard there was a controversy about housing a transgender student at GFU before I arrived at campus. To be honest, before I arrived at the GFU campus, I thought that this was a minor issue. And I could have easily have left the campus with my opinion intact, because the crucial workshop where my mind changed was one of several alternatives for that Friday afternoon time period, and I seriously considered other options for the time period.
Anyhow, I did end up going to the workshop on “Gender Diversity in Higher Education,” as did many others of the conference attendees. The workshop had a peculiar genesis (actually not unusual for the loosely organized FAHE conference – it is a refreshing change from over-structured academic conferences). The organizer of this workshop knew about the issues GFU faced in this regard, and felt there ought to be a workshop on the subject, and so she organized one – even though she admitted that she had no expertise in the area of gender studies and higher education!
So, we all went around and shared our preferred pronouns – but there was a lot of time left after the minimal programming for the workshop session had been exhausted. The group seemed to fall into quiet, not sure how to proceed. I admit that I had a number of questions, and in the generous space that was presenting itself, I asked a couple of them. But my major question was, “Well, I know that it is not the purpose of this workshop per se, and you should feel free to decline to answer this, but I notice that there are a number of GFU faculty and staff in this room, and I know that you have had some experience, maybe even controversy, about housing a transgender student, but that’s all I know. So, what’s going on here?”
CEF: Plain speaking. Good. What response did you get?
ANGELL: I would have expected that GFU faculty and staff would have been prepared to respond to this question, at least in the sense of whether they would respond to it. But my initial sense of their response was confusion on their part. It seemed that some wanted to pass by the question, as would have been their right under the circumstances. I certainly wasn’t trying to put anyone on the spot. But then another GFU employee spoke up, and gave his sense of the controversy, speaking warmly and empathetically about Jayce, the transgender student, but quite critically of Jayce’s lawyer and the news media. As he finished, the time for the workshop had expired, so the quiet hubbub that happens as any workshop closes commenced.
At that moment, a FAHE member from the Eastern United States, noting the tension in the room, leaned over to me to ask, “Steve, why does the atmosphere seem so thick to you?” I responded, “Because it seems to me that we haven’t heard the whole truth.” I walked toward the back of the room where Wess Daniels was sitting. He had not spoken during the entire workshop, but he did not seem happy. He said, “If they handled this situation so brilliantly, why did they have to fire a faculty member because of it?” I had talked to Wess sometime previously about the situation, and I knew that he was referring to his own experience.
The matter came up obliquely, in the closing worship, and I detail that in my QT article. But I left the campus with a sense of considerable disquiet, especially after talking with a GFU faculty member who felt that to speak publicly on the issue would put that person’s job in jeopardy. I mentioned that I was feeling a leading to find out more about the episode, and to write about it. The response was, “Would you, please?”
Well, I had other obligations for a few weeks after that, meaning that in the immediate future I couldn’t do anything about my leading. But that was fine. One of the tests of a Quaker leading is patience. And if I attended to my other obligations faithfully, I would have an opportunity to ascertain in a few weeks’ time if my leading would remain that strong.
The leading did remain strong. As I prayed about this subject, it felt as if the Light of Christ was calling me to take up this project. When I mentioned my experience to my Quaker community (including my fellow editor at Quaker Theology), I was uniformly encouraged and confirmed in my leading. Thus, sometime in July, I began work on the article that would eventually appear in QT #27.
While I was working on this article, NWYM held its annual sessions, and on the very next day after the sessions ended, the NWYM Elders announced their decision to “release” West Hills Friends. Suddenly, I found my subject matter essentially doubled. And the new part of the article was very different from my original subject matter, because I was writing on events that were still happening, and I had to wait for about 30 days to see what would happen. But soon after the August 23 deadline for appeals of the West Hills Friends expulsion, I was able to wrap up my report and submit it for publication. It was another project that helped to consume my energies during an already busy summer.
CEF: Did you expect your decision to result in such a substantial report in Quaker Theology #27?
ANGELL: Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. An initial draft that I shared with the editor was much shorter than what ended up in QT #27. But I quickly found out several things.
First, there hasn’t been a whole lot of thinking or writing about transgender issues among Quakers, especially outside of LGBT circles.
Second, even among the broader culture, that most of the resources available about transgender issues are very, very recent. I didn’t know about these resources before beginning work on this article, and I highly doubted that many other Quakers knew about them.
Third, GFU was great about press availability. When I called and asked for something, my calls were promptly returned, and the university employees that I talked to were very generous with their time, and grateful that I was concerned about giving an accurate account. So, I felt “way opening” in several different respects as I worked on this article.
CEF: Let’s focus for a bit on GFU. What’s your most recent info about the situation at GFU for Jayce? Any other developments on the LGBT front there?
ANGELL: My sense from afar is that there is a fair amount going on. I am told that Jayce continues to live a couple of blocks off campus with three African American male friends. (Jayce himself is African American.) While Jayce is clear that this is not an ideal living situation for him, it appears to be a satisfactory one. A GFU professor, Paul Anderson, states that the university is in conversation with another transgender student about housing, and that those conversations are going well.
My general sense is that the GFU administration is realizing that there may very well be ways that transgender students can be accommodated without having to change their lifestyle standards, and that they are eager to pursue that.
But it has to be said that transgender housing is only one small part of the LGBT issues that GFU faces. The OneGeorgeFox news site has not posted much news lately, but what is there demonstrates that LGBTQ students continue to face many troubling issues on the campus. A June posting by a 2015 GFU alum complains about limits placed on his freedom of speech at GFU.
Follow up coverage on my article, whether by me or someone else, needs to include much more in the way of input from current GFU LGBT alumni, allies – or students and employees themselves, if it can be done safely without punishment being levied on the persons concerned. My location in far-off Indiana is, I have to say, something of a hindrance to accomplishing this kind of a journalistic account. In some ways, I am the wrong person to ask this particular question.
But I should hasten to add that my account of GFU ends on an encouraging note, with a brief description of GFU’s Board taking action in March, 2015, to articulate a more welcoming approach toward transgender students. And the national media has begun to take note. GFU at last is getting ahead of the publicity curve. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Guide to Gender-Inclusive Facilities” (October 23, p. B8) contains this bouquet for GFU: “Many smaller colleges – among them Amherst, Antioch, Connecticut, George Fox, Ithaca, and Pitzer – are working, sometimes in creative ways, to make sure their facilities accommodate transgender students.” After the relentless pounding that GFU took in the press in 2014, to have a positive news item like this appear in an influential publication in 2015 is very nice indeed!
CEF: I was really struck by what has been called the faculty gag rule at GFU. It also sounds as if there’s double-talk (or for the Orwellian-minded, Doublespeak) about it — administration officials say there is NOT a gag rule, but faculty members say there is — or at least they say that in private, not for attribution (as people would do if there really was a gag rule intact, regardless of what was “said” about it). What’s your sense? And is this kind of censorship spreading on college campuses generally, or is GFU something “special”?
ANGELL: The president of GFU, Robin Baker, who I quote in the article, says there is no “gag rule.” He says academic freedom is guaranteed for GFU professors. On some issues that are controversial in some evangelical Christian circles, e.g., climate change, it is clear to me that GFU employees are free to speak their minds. See, for example, this interesting work by George Fox Evangelical Seminary [GFES} professors: Daniel Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology, intro. by Bill McKibben (Baker Publishing Group, 2014).
It is also clear to me, however, that academic freedom at GFU does not extend to discussion of matters concerning human sexuality. And that it cannot, as long as the current lifestyle standards of the University are in place (and, as I state in my article, there are no plans to change or even to reconsider them at this point).
This is an increasing problem for GFU professors and staff; in this most unchurched of states (Oregon) where same-sex marriage is legal and increasingly mainstream, GFES and GFU professors are in danger of finding their relevance circumscribed because of an inability to candidly express their views on matters of human sexuality. This specific issue is most severe at the so-called Christian colleges, although faculty at other seminaries and universities could do much more to engage matters of human sexuality in a constructive manner, especially in print.
CEF: Were you persuaded by the faculty/admin explanations about how C. Wess Daniels was not “fired” from his adjunct teaching role at GFU as a result of his public support for Jayce?
ANGELL: Hiring and firing of adjunct faculty is a fairly casual matter, one with little or no oversight from professional bodies. Wess chose not to appeal any decisions related to his departure, so we don’t have much of a record to go on. So, with all these appropriate caveats, it is my general sense that Wess was fired. Put the matter this way: if regular GFU and GFES faculty or students don’t have academic freedom to address squarely LGBT issues, why would the GFU administration tolerate their adjunct faculty to speak and write on the subject any more freely?
In general, Quaker seminaries (including where I teach, Earlham School of Religion) don’t like their professors to criticize their policies and actions, without airing their disagreements with the administration first, so that the latter aren’t blindsided. However, an important difference between ESR and GFES is that ESR doesn’t have a “lifestyle standards” statement condemning same-sex relationships to which all students and faculty must agree. So the academic freedom of ESR faculty is not constrained on matters of human sexuality. I don’t have to check with anybody before I discuss that issue.
CEF: You wrote that, while GFU claims its “lifestyle standards are unchallengeable,” that you don’t think GFU is “immoveable.” But has the experience with Jayce prepared GFU to cope with the likely surfacing of LGBT students who wouldn’t pledge compliance with the campus code? — or would such dissenters simply be expelled?
ANGELL: This remains to be seen. The policy of “least resistance” at Evangelical Christian colleges is to take all unapproved discussions and actions off campus, where an unofficial (or, in Jayce’s case, an official) tolerance would be observed. This may provide something of a safety valve.
CEF: And what about how they would react to another faculty member who publicly dissented, on say, LGBT inclusion? Would you speak up if you were teaching there?
ANGELL: My understanding is that there have been faculty who have asked for permission, for example, to sign the “OneGeorgeFox” petition, and that permission has been denied. Under current circumstances, I don’t think that I would be free to talk about matters of human sexuality if I were a professor at GFU. If the administration were persistently challenged by a faculty member speaking up, I don’t know what they would do. I also don’t see any GFU faculty member that is willing to transgress that boundary in order to find out.
CEF: Can you reflect for a bit on the term “brokenness,” as a staple of many evangelical theological/ethical discussions, and particularly as it applies to LGBT persons? Or to be more plain, does that term bother you as much as it does me? Why or why not?
ANGELL: Interesting question. I will answer expansively, because I think this really gets to the heart of the mission of our journal, Quaker Theology. Quakers have traditionally used the word “broken” to describe the tender condition of a person ready for and receptive to new growth in the Spirit – contrite and broken open, if you will. Quaker theologian Marge Abbott, a member of North Pacific Yearly Meeting and a regular participant in liberal and evangelical Quaker theological dialogue in the Pacific Northwest, uses the word this way.
Many evangelical Friends seem to use it somewhat differently, to describe what they see as an ubiquitous aspect of the human condition, akin to fallenness or sin. Its exact shape and limits are unclear. It is possible that the use of “brokenness” may be an attempt to take into account not only human-caused sin or evil, but also natural evil, the latter something about which many would say that humans aren’t responsible for it. The Oxford English Dictionary (in its first edition of 1888) suggests something of this broader perspective when it defines “brokenness” as “the state of being crushed or overwhelmed with sorrow, misfortune, etc.; contrition (obs.); prostration, despair.”
CEF: It may go back to 1888, but doesn’t the term seem to crop up a lot today, especially regarding sexual issues?
ANGELL: In the area of human sexuality, where this term is bandied about a lot, is this particular manifestation of language, a sign that evangelical Christian (including evangelical Quaker) culture is in a period of gradual change? Or is it merely a sign that the lifestyle standards will remain immovable, and just be defended by language that is vaguer and less immediately offensive? I don’t know. I’m hopeful for the former. I really can’t see how the current Evangelical Quaker stances denying same-sex marriage can survive another generation. Retrenchment and doubling down on their current interpretation of Scripture in relation to homosexuality is a counterproductive response. It’s time for change now.
But, one might ask, is the distinction between human and natural evil a valid one? Thus, for example, as Nepalese missionary Bob Adhikary alleged at NWYM sessions in 2009, is a horrific catastrophe (like Hurricane Katrina in 2005) God’s punishment for the United States allowing itself to become a “virtual Sodom” with its tolerance of gays and lesbians? If natural evil such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis are really, at bottom, expressions of God’s wrath against human sinfulness (or brokenness?), then distinctions between natural and human evil collapse, and we are left with the neat and tidy conclusion that everything horrible that happens in the world may be somehow the result of human sin.
It is clear that some evangelical Christians, including some Quakers, are attracted to this line (or a similar line) of theological analysis, and it is equally apparent that many Christians, including some evangelical Quakers, are either appalled by this line of theological analysis or are deeply troubled by it. Thus, Adhikary’s remarks sparked controversy at the NWYM sessions in 2009, starting with the Senior High group, which noted disagreements over his remarks in their Epistle. That at least some adults in NWYM also disagreed with Adhikary is reflected in the fact that the Epistle of the entire yearly meeting referenced this part of the Senior High Epistle.
With reference to a different natural disaster (the 2010 earthquake in Haiti), my critique of this tendency among some evangelical Christians in the United States to want to blame natural evils, like earthquakes, on human sinfulness, can be found here.
To refer to human behavior that one does not approve of as “brokenness” rather than “sin” may signal an attempt by some evangelical Christians (including some Quakers) to evade these sharp controversies on larger questions of possible connections between various kinds of evils that afflict humanity.
Coming in Part Two: Re-visiting the “Shattering” in Northwest YM over a welcoming congregation. And does “Release” really mean “expulsion”?