Last Sunday's weekly chapel service hosted by the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) was interrupted when two students, of about 50 in attendance, walked out of the chapel in reaction to what they considered to be homophobic remarks.
As a result of student response to the sermon, the Dean's Office has retracted funding for that service.
The topic of Sunday's sermon was "The Wrath of God," based on 1:18-32 of the Book of Romans. The sermon was delivered by Freeport-based pastor Sandy Williams, a Baptist preacher of more than 30 years and one of over 15 chapel service speakers who have preached in the last semester.
Kate Herman and Cordelia Miller, both Class of 2015, left the service around verses 26 and 27.
Williams "quoted two lines from Romans; then he made some very broad statements," Herman said. "I feel uncomfortable saying exactly what he said because I'm sure it's gotten twisted in my mind since then, but, after he read the verses, he started preaching his beliefs, I believe it was within one or two minutes that we decided to walk out."
"The pastor explained the teachings of the Christian gospel as it relates to God's ordering of our sexual life," wrote BCF advisor Rob Gregory in an email to the Orient. "God cares about the body, because he is the Creator; He can and does command both our desires and our behaviors in the body. And He also commands the list of other things (21 of them) that ought not to be done...The pastor explained the creation order of marriage is male and female."
"I am completely open to hearing other people's opinions, but, to me, when it was spoken in a chapel in the form of someone preaching, I was very uncomfortable with it," said Herman. "I felt that by remaining there, we were somehow accepting what he was saying, and I felt the need to leave."
"It's a Protestant denomination service, so, to me, that means it's inclusive of all Protestant beliefs," said Herman, "which would include people who both see gay marriage or homosexuality in general as completely acceptable in God's view and those who think it's a sin in God's eyes. I'm perfectly aware that there are verses in the Bible referring to this; I'm perfectly aware that people interpret that differently, and he's open to his interpretation, but I just felt that it was so forceful that, all of a sudden, the service clearly became that conservative Christian view and not an interdenominational service."
Herman composed an email after the service expressing her concern, citing "words against homosexuality" as "offensive" and questioning "why [the pastor] would be invited to voice those sentiments in the middle of what I understood to be an open and supportive campus." While intending to reach the BCF leadership, Herman unintentionally sent the email to the BCF mailing list of about 150 students.
Herman said that she sent the message in hopes of having a conversation with the leaders. "I think I started more of a dialogue among the entire BCF. Hopefully we will have that dialogue."
According to Amanda Gartside '12, a member of the BCF leadership team who attended Sunday's service, the group's leaders have not "entirely crafted a response yet."
In response to the appropriateness of delivering the text on an "open and supportive campus," Gartside said, "As a school, I think we are all here to explore the truth and we value intellectual freedom ...I think that religion plays an important role in that. We're not saying that you have to agree with us."
BCF is one of five chartered groups related to faith and spirituality on campus, in addition to the Muslim Student Association, Hillel, Catholic Student Union, and Spirituality Circle.
The Office of Multicultural Affairs has funded BCF chapel service since 2008.
"BCF is the only group that has regular outside preachers, and about four years ago it was established that the Dean's Office pays the honorarium for those [speakers]," said Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Programs Leana Amaez.
Amaez noted that neither she, nor the other deans, attend every service, so the Office has "funded [chapel services] without necessarily knowing what [is said]."
Since students approached her expressing concerns about the sermon, Amaez has been talking with Rob and Sim Gregory and the BCF leadership about how her office can support BCF going forward.
"We [the Dean's Office] are not going to fund Sunday night's speaker," Amaez said.
"Because the mission of my office is that students feel comfortable and included at Bowdoin no matter what their race, religion, class, sexuality, or gender may be, I will not fund things where students feel as if that aspect of their humanity is not being included or appreciated," she said.
"I want to be absolutely clear that I absolutely support BCF to give whatever message they feel is the right one for their faith; that said, there is a difference between your right to say anything and the College's need to fund it," Amaez added.
If the Dean's Office decides not to fund the BCF's chapel services, the BCF will have to seek money elsewhere, through fundraising or the Student Activities Funding Committee.
In his email, Gregory cited "obedience to the commands of Jesus (as they are found in the Bible) and belief in the authority, trustworthiness and inspiration of the Bible" as being at the core of the BCF's Mission Statement.
According to Gregory, Sunday's service was no different than past services, which began in February of 2008 with approval from the Dean's Office after 40 years of dormancy in the chapel.
"This year the chapel services are all taken from the Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans," he said. "Last year the services focused on the Cross of Christ...In every case, the speaker takes the next text in the series and prays for grace to be faithful to preach the text, its meaning, and not personal opinions."
"The Bible understands that we rebel against limits to human behavior. Jesus knew about it. Paul knew about it. It is part of the life of an experienced pastor to expect it," Gregory said.
"I think the passage that was preached on is, it's a hard passage, I mean, for all of us," said Gartside. "Pastor Sandy had a question-and-answer session at the end, and it was unfortunate that the girls didn't get to stay for that. He had some difficult questions thrown at him."
"I was very humbled when he said, 'This is a difficult issue, but I believe my job as a pastor is to convey to you what is said in the Scripture.' He was doing us a service by being there preaching the Book of Romans," she added.
"I think that it's difficult because we have multiple denominations and belief systems and people who are going to tell they take this stance on one thing and this stance on another thing," said Gartside. "Ultimately this is a place for those who want to follow Christ and submit to his authority and the authority of Scripture; it's a place for all of us to come to."
"My opinion...is, if they're going to be the Christian fellowship, all different types of Christian, then they can't just represent the views of a specific group of Christians," said Herman, a self-identified Lutheran.
Gregory stood by Sunday's text selection and analysis.
"The words of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus and the Bible, do vie against culture. It is a counter-cultural message," he said. "The Bible anticipates that offense...There is something that speaks to all of us that makes us uncomfortable...It doesn't come as a surprise," said Gregory. "We want to be as broad and fair in looking at as many texts as we can."
"The offense certainly is in the text [but]...I'm sure [people] would have problems thinking that we're going to go through the Bible and cut out passages and say, 'Well, Bowdoin students can't handle these texts," he said.
"I think Katharine [Herman] said this earlier about how it's really important that every part of the Bible be analyzed and spoken about it in church, and so I think this is certainly an appropriate passage to choose," said Miller. "But the way [the pastor] chose to deal with it was our problem."
Micah Ludwig '13, a member of the BCF leadership team, cited his concerns in conducting dialogue around the sermon, including the potential for an open forum to become "confrontational" and "heated."
"We want to be able to have the free exchange of conversation and we don't want [this] to turn into an argument," he said.
As of right now, we are more than willing to talk to individuals, if they would like to do that."
This article was edited for clarity on September 23, 2011.