Thomas K. Hearn Jr.
Wake Forest University
(The following is an excerpt from the address delivered by
President Thomas K. Hearn Jr. in Brendle Recital Hall.)
I am especially glad to have this opportunity to meet today with members of the faculty about the Wake Forest Baptist Church matter. During the past two weeks, I have received messages from many of you and, while I have been unable to answer each one, I have listened and learned from you.
For the remainder of the time I have with you this afternoon, I want to respond to the questions and comments that you have conveyed to me in recent days. A number of questions were sent over for me to address at this session. We will have other occasions, I am sure, to address those not covered today. Regarding this present controversy, we will be arranging other forums with campus groups to continue the kind of discussion the topic deserves. I should also let you know that we have pledged to the Wake Forest Baptist Church that, going forward, we will not conduct our dialogue with the Church in the press.
Today, we have a better chance of communication face-to-face, even though I am not sanguine about the prospect that minds can be much changed. There are some matters, the abortion debate in recent years comes to mind, about which communication, let alone mutual understanding, seldom occurs. People come to such debates from alternative conceptual frames of reference that provide no common ground. One asserts freedom. Another asserts the right to life. In such cases, dialogue is reduced to sloganeering and name-calling. Framing such issues is crucial if we are to be open to dialogue, and we have not done that task well in the past couple of weeks. That is one reason why I welcome this opportunity.
I hope it will be acceptable for me to comment briefly on the WFDD issue. There is no question that we honor and we will have free speech and freedom of the press at Wake Forest. Vice President Boyette has communicated with the campus community twice, and will meet with the Faculty Senate this week. A committee of experienced faculty has been asked to assist us in creating appropriate policies to protect press freedom at WFDD. They are Miles Foy, Katy Harriger, Mike Hazen, Wayne King and Harry Titus. Russell Brantley will be a resource person for the committee. The recent problem indicates that such a review will serve us all.
If you know Sandra Boyette at all, you know that she is intelligent and wise in public matters. If you know Sandra at all well, you know that she is principled. She has served Wake Forest long and capably and she is working hard to set this matter right.
At Wake Forest we have long defended free speech. And, we will continue to do so. We must also work together to avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding when we have differences.
In these past days and weeks, I have been often reminded of the agonizing and polarizing debate which engaged the campus and the larger Wake Forest community as we debated our relationship with the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. There were diametrically opposed views, vehemently expressed, on all sides. It was a difficult and complex matter precisely because it did not yield to a simple factual or moral formulation acceptable to the warring parties.
The Board took a path between the extremes. It declared the governance of the University independent of the church, but committed the University to respect and honor our founding religious heritage. The Board and the University have labored to keep that promise-an a utonomous board committed to the values and tradition of its forebears.
My remarks about the same-sex union in Wait Chapel must begin with the Trustee Statement that has been the focus of discussion and debate. In order to answer the Church’s inquiry, it was first necessary to consider the heritage of the University. It is clear that the University’s response to such an inquiry must be consistent with its religious heritage. Because of the Trustee Committee’s commitment to the religious heritage of the University and its view that the Church’s question is religious in nature, the Committee took into account the views of the Christian Church on this subject. The Committee found that the large body of the Church has chosen not to sanction these ceremonies. Finally and emphatically, the statement affirms the autonomy of the Wake Forest Baptist Church by declaring that it is not the intent of the University to restrict the practice of the congregation, whatever the ultimate decision of the Church might be.
The Trustees who deliberated this matter are persons of the highest character and caliber-the kind of leaders to whom Wake Forest is so indebted for wise counsel across the years.
Though most points in this story are complex and disputed-including whether Wake Forest Baptist Church has in fact sanctioned the proposed ceremony-what came to the Trustee Committee for discussion was a narrowly-defined question: whether church members might conduct a particular liturgical ceremony in University space. The University was asked, in effect, to approve such a ceremony in our facilities. The church itself spent five years discussing such issues and although a vote was taken, members do not agree on the resolution’s meaning.
The issue presented by the Church was not one of the status of gay persons at Wake Forest University. The Trustees have adopted a policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation at the University. Rather, the issue of a same-sex union was raised by the Wake Forest Baptist Church and is a church issue. The regulation of religious marriage is exclusively the province of the church.
The issue was not a matter of academic freedom, since this is not a question of academic practice but of proposed religious practice. This does not compare to the evolution controversy of the 1920s, as some have supposed, since the free pursuit of truth is not at issue. The question is a liturgical one. Wake Forest was asked, in effect, whether it would sanction the ceremony within its facilities which are devoted, in part, to sacred worship.
As an academic institution, Wake Forest has no authority to render judgments concerning religious practice. Wake Forest does, however, have an obligation in its charter to respect its Christian and Baptist heritage. The question, then, for Wake Forest University was this: what are we called upon to do that honors who we are as an institution? The University has answered this question as a participant in its religious heritage. In accordance with our heritage, the Trustees referred to those ecclesiastical institutions, the churches, in their many denominational expressions, which have religious authority over this matter.
I understand there are those here who question the validity of all religious tradition. There are others among us who disagree with the large majority in the Christian tradition about many issues, including same-sex unions. Having read and talked much about this subject recently-and having taught for years in a discipline where disagreements are often intractable-I realize that for those who define this issue in terms of personal rights and non-discrimination, much of what I said is not persuasive. But many of the communications I have received indicate that we have not made clear-despite the opening of the Divinity School, a school-sponsored chaplaincy program, and the elements of worship in all our public ceremonies-we have not made clear that the Trustees take our religious heritage and commitment seriously. So do I. While our governance is independent of any denomination, the religious tradition of our founders cannot and should not be disregarded.
Returning to the Trustee Statement, it has been all but universally misunderstood. Nowhere does the Trustee Statement “forbid” or “prohibit” the Church from doing anything. I do not know why the statement has been read without due attention to the affirmation that the church is autonomous. The Board asked the Church not to perform the ceremony in Wait Chapel, because it did not want to involuntarily sanction the ceremony. The Board told the Church that it did not intend to interfere with its decision, whatever it might be.
The University has no religious authority over the Church. The Trustee Statement recommended that the administration ask the Church to refrain from using University facilities for the ceremony. The Wake Forest Baptist Church has acknowledged that the Church’s use of Wait Chapel as its sanctuary has created confusion and ambiguity in the minds of many. The action requested put the University in a position of sanctioning a religious ceremony which most of the entire Christian tradition, Protestant and Catholic, has not recognized. This question, we know, divides sincere people of faith in even the most liberal and progressive denominations.
There is discussion underway on campus about a major University conference, led by the faculty, to provide a forum for the reasoned consideration of human sexuality and the church. I endorse the idea of such a conference in the belief that this is the appropriate role of the University. I hope that we can all profit from a thoughtful and sustained discussion of these issues. These issues do not lend themselves to dogmatic certainty, and, for that reason, it is even more important that we maintain a rational environment in which all sides can be heard.
In summary, Wake Forest deferred a liturgical, religious question to the appropriate body, the church. The University also affirmed its Christian tradition and heritage. The Board recognized the independence of the Wake Forest Baptist Church in reaching its own decisions. The University and the Church have committed to each other to remain in constructive dialogue going forward.
We have communicated clearly with Wake Forest Baptist Church to reaffirm statements made to the Church leadership earlier. I want to quote from a letter to the Church. The letter reiterates assurances from the Trustee Report by saying, “it is not the intention of the University to restrict the practice of the congregation whatever its ultimate decision may be or to interfere with the content of the church services.”
In closing, obviously, these issues are fraught with anguish made more intense precisely because we are a community. We are addressing not strangers, but friends and colleagues. We are especially mindful of those who are aggrieved because the decision touches their personal lives. There is no doubt that both perspectives in this discussion are led by conscience.
On a personal level, I want to thank those of you who have been supportive of me, and have expressed an appreciation for the difficulty of dealing with this matter-even though in some cases, you did not agree with my views. This has been the cause of considerable anguish for me, and for so many people about whom I care deeply. I look forward to our continuing dialogue, and I yet hope that we may use this issue to contribute to the Wake Forest tradition of dealing with discussion issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect and civility. In so doing, we honor what is best in that tradition. I pledge myself to that endeavor.
- June 5, 2020
- June 4, 2020
- June 3, 2020