Presbyterian and Davidson Colleges have been much in the news in the New South states of South and North Carolina respectively. Leslie Scanlon’s article delineates the issue at Presbyterian for the OUTLOOK. We covered the controversial proposal one year ago this month (the June 7th issue). That proposal led to the appointment of a commission to study these matters, chaired by Allen McSween of 4th Presbyterian in Greenville, SC. Since religion is big news everywhere, the secular press has given this college conflict extensive coverage.
In the meantime, this past February, Davidson’s trustees amended its statement of purpose (see Rob Spach’s Oped piece for the Charlotte Observer, which defends the action) to allow (not recruit but allow) 20% of its trustees be of faiths other than Christian, or of no faith. That action has provoked dismay and heated criticism, even though there are by now scores, if not hundreds, of Davidson alumni/ae who are persons of other faiths.
The public controversy is a positive development, and faithful church members who care about Presbyterian higher education can only hope that these examples will inspire more conversation from Eckerd in Florida, to Agnes Scott in Atlanta, to Whitworth in Washington. Princeton, Yale, and Harvard (and even William and Mary whose original charter is explicitly Christian and evangelical) are gone.
It is clear that of the 66 colleges listed in the PC(USA) planning calendar, only a few have requirements that any trustees be Christian, much less Presbyterian. Some colleges with no formal ties to the denomination (requirements in covenants with governing bodies) do have “quotas’ for their boards to keep the colleges attached to the traditions (ecclesial and theological) that gave them birth. But almost all church related higher education has drifted away from loyalty oaths (to the Westminster Standards, for example) that characterized some institutions in the 1950s.
This is not necessarily a weakness, for as the McSween Commission observes “there are pressures in the church and in American society that would push [colleges] toward [more narrowness] and towards a constraint of the academic freedom so vital to the integrity of the college.”
On the other hand, as I asked a year ago, why do colleges with explicit and/or historic Presbyterian credentials abandon the interpretation of the Scriptures to the most narrow (and emotionally rigid) groups on their campuses? It staggers the imagination. Do we want alums from Presbyterian-related colleges who do not encounter a rigorous, intelligent, and even devotional study of the Old and New Testaments, to become brilliant political scientists, doctors, and physicists, and yet have knowledge of the Bible appropriate for a Middle High School student? I don’t think so. Surely it is the mission of church-related higher education to ground students in the Christian faith so that, with seriousness and respect, they may encounter non-Christian faith traditions. That is achievable, if there is the will to do it.
Finally, these controversies and discussions, resolutions and actions reveal something deeper and more troubling. It is a decades old trend — in church education programs, in childcare centers, in seminaries, and in progressive church related colleges. The question is addressed to us: What prevents us from passing on (handing down, call it what you will) the very ecclesial and theological traditions that made us the “enlightened, progressive” people we like to think we are? What is happening to the foundations on which we stand?