Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Men Who Rule Us: Assuring Clerical Dominance

This is not an easy time in which to write. We’re preparing for a funeral. Even so, I don’t want to let my train of thought stop short. I offer the following reflections with the proviso that they are sketchy, written as my mind and heart are occupied with other matters now.

I wrote last week about the shared interest of men—straight-identified men—in continuing their dominance in the leadership sectors of all mainstream churches. I wrote about how the system of clericalism—a system built on male domination of women, and on the domination of gay men by straight-presenting men—is a system deeply entrenched in all the mainstream churches. There is a shared interest among the leaders of the churches in seeing that the system of clerical control remains intact, an interest that transcends denominational boundary lines.

I’m aware that not all mainstream churches resist the ordination of women, as the Catholic and Orthodox churches do. Even so, I would argue that in those churches in which women are now able to be ordained (e.g., the United Methodist, Episcopal Church USA, Anglican, Presbyterian), men still strongly dominate. One would have to be blind not to see the manifold ways in which institutional power prefers men—straight-acting ones—over women in the structures of these churches.

No matter how brilliant a woman’s seminary career is, she is highly unlikely to step into a pastorate as plush as the one afforded to her straight-presenting male counterpart when seminary ends. And she is far less likely ever to capture the pulpit of the “first” churches of the denomination, the ones from whose pulpit “the” Methodist/Presbyterian, etc., voice is beamed out across a state each Sunday.

I long since gave up attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion because I was, frankly, tired of rubbing shoulders with bearded, tweed-jacketed straight-presenting married men who claim to have the final word on matters religious. After I finished graduate school, I no longer had to choose to affiliate with these men who rule us. When it became obvious to me that I wouldn’t be accorded a voice, anyway, I gladly stopped rubbing shoulders with those of privileged voice, since I have my own thoughts to think, and nothing is more distracting than listening to empty cant when it postures as the final word.

Given the common interests of the system of clericalism across denominational lines, it is not surprising to discover how ready the Vatican or Orthodox patriarchs are today to shore up the “traditional” males-only, no-gay-allowed clerical system of the Anglican communion—even when the Vatican has long since declared Anglican orders invalid! Under the guise of defending orthodoxy and tradition, the men who rule us in the churches are actually defending their own clerical power and privilege, their exclusive right to represent the unitary voice that speaks on behalf of their communion. The future of Christianity is, to a great extent, being staked today on the single doctrine of male domination—of women and of men construed as feminine, due to their gay sexual orientation.

This is the why of clericalism and of its tremendous push to preserve (and extend) itself at this point in Christian history, at all costs. The how of clericalism is perhaps less obvious, less simple to analyze. It is less simple to analyze because the clerical system manages to maintain its control throughout the Christian communions by manifold expressions of power and privilege whose mechanisms are usually hidden from public view.

My own entry point for obtaining a glimpse of the system of clerical dominance in ugly operation has been in academic life. Last week, my friend Colleen Baker reported on her Enlightened Catholicism blog that Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether had recently been named to the Msgr. John R. Portman Chair of the University of San Diego—only to find herself summarily disinvited from the Chair after her appointment was announced (see http://enlightenedcatholicism-colkoch.blogspot.com/2008/07/rosemary-radford-ruether-loses-to.html). The university provost tells Ruether that the anonymous donor who provided funding for this chair had a different vision for it than Ruether represents.

Rosemary Ruether notes that the San Diego decision is troubling on several fronts—most of all, because it implicitly denies academic freedom to the faculty who chose her for the chair. It is important to me to note that 1) the donor’s name has not been made public; 2) the donor can exercise great influence over intra-collegial decisions while remaining hidden—an unenviable development, since this opens the door to allowing academic discourse to be “bought” by unnamed powerful interest groups; and 3) the secretiveness with which the matter is now being handled underscores Ruether’s point that academic freedom is being threatened.

Academic freedom by its very nature demands that controversial decisions such as this be brought into the light of day for open, free consideration within the collegial context. Whenever the leaders of an academic institution resort to the cover of darkness for their actions—when they refuse to allow the reasons for major decisions to be made public and discussed in the public forum—one can be assured that the reasons don’t bear scrutiny and won’t stand up under collegial investigation.

What happened to Rosemary Ruether at the University of San Diego is, unfortunately, becoming all too common in church-sponsored institutions of higher learning. Since theologians are the one “official” critical voice that, by its very calling, must continue to talk about issues even when church authorities have tabled them, and must pursue truth that the power centers of church and society wish to avoid facing, then for social and ecclesial power centers that wish to reduce the truth proclaimed by a religious community to a unitary voice, it is important to suppress the voices of theologians. As Ruether’s story illustrates, it is relatively easy—and becoming ever easier—for church leaders to accomplish this using sub rosa channels of economic power and influence within university structures in which the powerful behind-the-scenes players who assist church leaders in maintaining their dominance are never revealed.

We live at a moment in Christian history when we will be seeing more and more attempts to curb and norm the conversation within churches, and to place it under the direct control of church leaders intent on representing their voice as the voice of the communion. What happened to Rosemary Ruether brings to mind what happened to another Catholic theologian, Charles Curran, over a decade ago.

In 1990, after he was dumped by Catholic University of America when his teaching about homosexuality and birth control earned him Vatican censure, Curran was offered tenure at Auburn University in Alabama. After the appointment was made, however, the university president announced that he would not be giving tenure to Curran. No reason was provided for this decision. At the time, there was discussion of the possible influence of Mobile Catholic archbishop Oscar Lipscomb on the Auburn president’s decision. Curran reported that Lipscomb had admitted to him that he had discussed Curran’s case with a Catholic trustee at Auburn—though Lipscomb denied having sought to influence the Auburn decision.

Charles Curran filed suit against Catholic University for his termination, only to find that the court upheld the right of the university to fire faculty members—even tenured ones—on religious grounds. The Curran case has created an ugly precedent whereby church-affiliated schools can now freely violate the academic freedom of faculty members while citing religious privilege as they do so—though schools usually employ covert ways of curbing or dismissing faculty members rather than outright termination. They do so because, even with court-defended religious exemptions, academic accrediting societies still demand that schools pay lip service to academic freedom, if the schools expect to be accredited.

Stating that one is terminating a faculty member because his/her work violates the religious beliefs of the university places a school in the unenviable position of appearing not to respect academic freedom. It is simply easier to cook up some other spurious reason (e.g., “inability to cooperate with this administration,” “lack of collegiality”) for the termination, so as to avoid negative publicity and court battles.

What happened to Curran and to Rosemary Ruether illustrates how the power centers of churches control and disempower theologians today across denominational lines. They do so via hidden channels of influence that operate at the level of presidents and boards of trustees, channels never exposed to public scrutiny. When decisions such as the Ruether or Curran decision are made by presidents and boards of trustees, the true story of how the academic freedom of a theologian is violated is never told: the story of midnight calls to pressure a president, of threats to withhold funding, of moral emptiness on the part of university and church leaders, of manufactured reasons for dismissal or denial of tenure that have nothing to do with reality, of boards of trustees that will not hold presidents accountable even when the moral vacuity of a president is patent, and so on.

If there is any truth to Curran’s assertion that Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb played a role in Auburn’s decision to deny tenure to him (and I believe there is), then this story illustrates the collusion of power players beyond denominational lines, in the contemporary push to stop the voices of theologians. Auburn was Methodist-founded and is today a state university.

What interest could a Catholic bishop possibly have, or exert, in such an institution? And how could that interest be exerted? If answers to such questions were ever made public, we’d have a very clear picture, I believe, of how leaders of churches today (acting in collusion with each other and with powerful economic and political leaders) curb critical theological discourse in the academy in order to assure the continued dominance of the clerical system across denominational boundary lines, and the right of the men who rule the churches to speak unilaterally on behalf of “their” churches.

In such situations, one would expect accrediting bodies to play a significant role in assuring that academic freedom is respected. If a church-affiliated university freely violates the academic freedom of theologians, what is to prevent its doing something similar with professors of literature, sociology, biology, etc.? What university worth its name would willingly trample on the academic freedom of any of its faculty members?

Based on my own experiences within the academy, I am not sanguine about the role played by accrediting bodies in upholding academic freedom. As I have noted on this blog, I myself have had dismal experiences at two church-sponsored colleges/universities, both under the accreditation of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (SACS).

Both as an administrator in SACS-affiliated universities and as someone whose academic freedom was violated by universities accredited by SACS, I have observed that SACS bends over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the institution in cases in which faculty members report violations of academic freedom. In my first experience of being given a spurious terminal contract without any stated reason for the termination, and of being denied a written evaluation of my previous semester’s work, I met a brick wall when I reported what had happened to SACS.

Though I had ironclad proof that the academic vice-president had interfered in the operation of the college’s grievance committee, and though the refusal to provide a reason for my termination violates SACS’ own academic freedom statement, when I turned to SACS for support, SACS informed me that since the school had a grievance committee, I had had protection for my academic freedom. Never mind that this committee was a puppet committee that could not and did not act independently of the church authorities controlling the school . . . .

Because of this experience, I did not even bother turning to SACS on my second go-round at a SACS-accredited church-sponsored university. It was at this university that I was terminated without having even been given any evaluation of my year’s work—though, as I have noted on this blog, a document later came into my hands in which my supervisor reported to the board that a consultant who had been brought in to talk to me about SACS-accreditation issues had actually “evaluated” me and had recommended my termination.

I was never given this consultant’s report. I was not even told that he had “evaluated” me. I never had any evaluation of my work prior to my termination—a clear violation of SACS academic freedom regulations. The consultant brought in to “evaluate” me has published articles about the social construction of African-American manhood that are overtly homophobic. He is a Baptist Sunday School teacher. He is not even in the area in which he purportedly “evaluated” me—academic affairs—and is not even at a SACS-affiliated college. His knowledge of SACS standards was abysmal, I discovered when he met with me. If he “evaluated” me, he did so without ever having met me, on the basis of a single interview of an hour or so. And, given his background, it is impossible to imagine that his “evaluation” of me would in any way be unbiased. He was clearly brought in to do a hatchet job on an openly gay university administrator whose “lifestyle” he held in contempt, and he did his job well.

All of which is to say, it is not hard at all to silence theologians nowadays, particularly in church-affiliated universities, and especially in areas (such as the American Southeast) in which the commitment of academic accrediting bodies to academic freedom is weak when religious commitments are involved. When one takes into consideration the fact that laws protecting the rights of workers from wrongful termination are also weak in precisely the same areas of the country in which the churches’ right to terminate faculty on religious grounds is uncontested, one begins to understand why accrediting bodies in these areas are historically weak on academic freedom issues. To defend academic freedom, they would have to stand against strong currents of their culture—and against the powerful influence of the economic and political figures who collude with church leaders to silence critical voices.

There is a game-playing dimension to the way in which accrediting bodies go about investigating institutions of higher learning. As an academic administrator, time and again, I have seen accrediting bodies send to a church-affiliated college a team of investigators heavily weighted with team members from the denomination that sponsors the school in question.

When one considers that almost all presidents of universities sponsored by a particular institution have strong institutional ties to the governing structures of the denomination controlling their university, one can understand how it is that most accrediting visits don’t probe critically into allegations that academic freedom of faculty has been violated on religious grounds. In order to move some academic accrediting bodies in the direction of a defense of academic freedom, one would have to transform the culture of the accrediting bodies themselves: to the extent that they continue to be old-boys’ networks dominated by those with ties to church-affiliated colleges and universities, they will continue not to have a strong interest in promoting academic freedom or investigating cases in which universities they accredit have violated academic freedom of faculty on religious grounds.

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And now for a change of subject: since this and previous postings focus on bishops and church governing bodies, I would like to take this opportunity to note the reappointment of a United Methodist bishop whose name has figured in previous postings on this blog. I’m referring to Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida United Methodist Conference.

Bishop Whitaker has just been re-appointed to another quadrennial term as UMC Bishop of Florida. Florida interests me for a number of reasons outlined in previous postings on this blog, including the growing number of cases of violent assault of LGBT citizens in that state. This is also a state in which an explicitly anti-gay initiative is on the ballot for the next election cycle.

It’s a state, in other words, in which the churches’ pastoral efforts can do either much harm or cause much woe. As Florida deals with its issues with gay citizens, it’s interesting to note that, pastorally speaking, the central part of the state is now solidly under the control of bishops representing different churches, all of whom have taken public stands that many gay citizens see as less than welcoming to the gay community.

As a posting on this blog notes, at the most recent United Methodist General Assembly, Bishop Whitaker chaired the discussion that resulted in a vote to continue the current language of the Book of Discipline which sees the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian life (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/05/we-are-all-care-of-one-another.html). My posting noted that participants in the debate at General Assembly were concerned with how Bishop Whitaker used parliamentary procedure to offset debate and to pave the way for a final statement in favor of the current policy by Rev. Eddie Fox, Director of UMC World Evangelism.

In a previous posting on this blog, I have also noted that the Catholic bishop of Orlando, Bishop Thomas Wenski, published a resoundingly anti-gay editorial in a newspaper in June (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/07/and-speaking-of-discrimination.html). Bishop Wenski calls for a continuation of the culture wars that have had such dismal effects on gay persons.

I have not touched previously on the Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida, Bishop John W. Howe. I should note that Bishop Howe appears to hold positions similar to those of his colleagues Bishops Whitaker and Wenski on gay persons and their inclusion in the church. All three of these gentlemen appear resolved to hold the line on gay persons and gay rights.

It would be interesting to know if any church-affiliated colleges or universities in this region manage to safeguard the right of faculty members to discuss gay and lesbian persons in a way that is more inclusive of these persons in the body of Christ . . . .

Rev. Whitaker’s friend Rev. Fox has been in the news again recently, and once again, in a way that makes clear his intent to continue defending the Methodist hard line against gay persons. When the California-Pacific and the California-Nevada Annual UMC Conferences both recently approved gay marriage and expressed support for pastors marrying gay couples, Rev. Fox responded by stating, "We've made it clear we adhere to biblical teaching and Christian tradition. Ninety-eight percent of Christians around the world believe marriage is between one man and one woman, so we're not out of step in our ecumenical relationships with Christians around the world" (see http://religionblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2008/07/california-umc-legislative-bod.html).

It would be difficult to imagine a United Methodist university in which Rev. Fox has influence giving hospitality to a theologian who calls for open dialogue about the place of LGBT persons in the churches, or for critical discourse about the disparity between what the churches proclaim about being welcoming places for gay believers, and how they actually behave towards LGBT persons. Fox and those allied with him seem far more intent on shutting down this conversation, than they are on pursuing it.

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