by Evanne Montoya
Whitworth will continue to hold onto its ties with the Presbyterian Church (USA) but also expand its partnerships with other groups, including different Presbyterian organizations and other denominations or churches. The Whitworth Board of Trustees announced its decision, in response to changes in the structure of the PC(USA), after its executive session Friday, April 12.
“I think the board made a strong and courageous decision to acknowledge on the one hand our historical relationship with the PC(USA) and on the other the opportunity to expand [other] relationships more formally to best represent where Whitworth already is in terms of its ability to reach out to other denominations,” President Beck Taylor said.
The board’s message also emphasized that Whitworth’s theological identity is shaped by three main ideas—reformed theology, evangelical tradition and ecumenical connections.
Taylor noted that those words can mean different things for different people.
“If Whitworth is going to go around and use some of those words that we need to come to a shared understanding in the community about the meaning of those words and more specifically how those words can help shape the mission and life of the university,” Taylor said.
Taylor said students will have a role in shaping that understanding. Most of the conversation, however, will occur this fall.
The board also revisited a proposal to change some of the language of the student handbook.
The proposal was brought up in the October meeting, but tabled as the board did not have sufficient time to discuss it. After renewed conversation they decided to remove a statement in the handbook’s cohabitation policy that defined marriage as between “one man and one woman.”
The Student Life Committee proposed the change in response to comments from Whitworth community members including students and alumni who questioned the inclusion of this language in light of Whitworth’s policy of not taking sides on issues on which faithful Christians disagree.
“I think really it was constituents of the university saying we hear one thing said about the university but we read something else in our policy,” Taylor said.
One of the Board’s roles is to ensure that Whitworth’s policies and procedures align with the school’s mission and identity.
“Whitworth has historically decided that it would cast its Christian mission in the context of a belief in the centrality of Christ and the authority of holy scripture,” Taylor said.
Still, Christians can believe those things and still come to a variety of conclusions on certain issues, Taylor said.
“Instead of claims that the university has a monopoly on truth on any particular issue we’ve always elevated the role of the university as a place where ideas can be discussed,” Taylor said.
The revised wording does not make any changes to the prohibition of cohabitation itself.
Taylor described both decisions as “descriptive” of how Whitworth already is, as opposed to “prescriptive.”
“Students shouldn’t expect a new Whitworth as a result of these changes, but rather I think the board’s direction and decision only affirms and strengthens who and what Whitworth already is,” Taylor said.
History of the cohabitation policy
Prohibition against cohabitation appears in the 1981 student handbook, said Dick Mandeville, vice president for student life.
“There are slight differences in the language every year for six years, and then the language that we would recognize appears in 1987,” Mandeville said.
As with the other aspects of the Big Three, the cohabitation policy states the rule, and then outlines values that inform the rule. The former policy defined marriage in its description of the values.
According to the former student handbook, “The Whitworth community’s commitment to the authority of scripture leads us to believe that the genital sexual relationship is to be understood and experienced within the context of that mutually acknowledged commitment to lifelong union known as marriage. We also believe that this union is to be understood as a committed relationship between one man and one woman (heterosexual monogamy).”
As he was working on rewriting the language of the handbook, Mandeville contacted Greg Hamann, former director of resident life, and Glenn Smith, former director of student activities. Hamann and Smith authored the original language.
“The first thing they each said separately was ‘that language [defining marriage] really shouldn’t have been in the student handbook,’” Mandeville said.
Student leaders were the first to make Mandeville aware of the inconsistency between the handbook’s explicit stance and Whitworth’s policy of not taking sides in these kinds of issues. During training for student leaders, some questioned the inclusion of the position.
“It came from a student conversation that led to a conversation with the Student Services Committee of the Board of Trustees,” Mandeville said.
Last spring the Student Services Committee asked the Student Life Committee to rewrite the policy.
The newly-approved policy removes the definition of marriage, now stating, “The Whitworth community’s commitment to the authority of scripture leads us to believe that the genital sexual relationship is to be understood and experienced within the context of marriage, and that to express it otherwise would diminish the high regard we have for this gift from God.”
For Mandeville, the change allows the university to be more consistent with the messages it sends to the student body.
“I think for us to be inconsistent is always a problem because it creates a credibility gap with students,” Mandeville said. “There have been students who have spoken to me and said that the policy makes them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or marginalized, and I’ve had students come in and say ‘regardless of what I believe about this, it affects me that it is in our handbook and it is inconsistent.’”
Mandeville said a university is a good place for people who believe different things to discuss their views.
“We ought to be able to engage in those conversations civilly,” he said. “I think anyone who comes to this place ought to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of what their positions are.”
Taylor said that the decisions to expand denominational ties and change the student handbook wording were not made based on a political or ideological spectrum.
“Some might view that we’re moving to the right, some might view that we’re moving to the left, on either one or both of those issues,” Taylor said. “Actually, I think that perfectly captures Whitworth, in the sense that it’s not about ideological, theological or political ideas. It’s about how we can best create the most fertile, constructive and healthy learning environment in the context of our university’s Christian mission.”
The Board of Trustees is entrusted with the goal of keeping Whitworth healthy and strong, both for current and future students, Taylor said.
“The board members are the protectors and the chief proponents of the mission of the university,” Taylor said.
The Board’s statement on Whitworth University’s Denominational Relationships as well as an FAQ are available on the Whitworth website.
Contact Evanne Montoya at firstname.lastname@example.org