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Episcopal university faces backlash over honorary degree to disgraced journalist

Posted on: February 23, 2018 12:24 PM
Charlie Rose addresses graduates as he receives his honorary degree from Sewanee: the University of the South in May 2016
Photo Credit: University of the South

A Tennessee university with links to the US-based Episcopal Church is facing a growing backlash over its decision not to rescind an honorary degree to a journalist mired in allegations of sexual harassment. Charlie Rose was sacked as host of the networked “CBS This Morning” television programme last November after the Washington Post reported allegations from eight women claiming that he had made unwanted sexual advances, involving nudity, groping and lewd calls. For his part, Rose apologised for his “inappropriate behaviour” and admitted that he had “behaved insensitively at times,” while disputing the accuracy of some of the allegations.

This week, the Board of Regents at Sewanee: The University of the South rejected calls to rescind Rose of the honorary degree which was conferred in Spring 2016, saying that “We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men. At the same time, we do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness.”

The Board of Regents also asserted “condemnation has no place here” before elaborating on its “ecclesiastical considerations” in the matter, saying: “Clarification comes in the question ‘Is there a hierarchy of sin?’ Quickly followed by ‘Are we all not sinners?’ Therein lies the ecumenical rub,” the board’s letter said. “If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?”

Sewanee’s Episcopal roots date to its founding in 1857 by clergy and lay leaders from dioceses across the south. It continues to be owned and governed by 28 Episcopal dioceses and offers a full range of degrees, in addition to training future church leaders in its seminary. Four Episcopal bishops and three Episcopal priests sit on the 20-member Board of Regents, including Florida Bishop Samuel Howard, who serves as an ex officio board member because of his position as Sewanee chancellor.

Responding to the Board of Regents’ decision, eight professors from the university’s School of Theology – a majority of the faculty members – have written to challenge the decision. Framing their response “within the larger, theologically grounded tradition of pastoral response to sin and forgiveness”, they challenge the board’s theological justifications.

“Respectfully, we must insist that there is a hierarchy of sin, long recognised in the tradition,” the professors say. “In the gospels, Jesus himself makes such distinctions, and he forcefully censures those who place a ‘stumbling block’ before others – that is, create scandal that impedes faith.”

The professors also cite the disciplinary rubric in the Book of Common Prayer that says clergy should prevent from taking communion those who are “living a notoriously evil life” and those “who have done wrong to their neighbours and are a scandal.”

“Public scandal is, in the tradition, regarded as a reason to send a message,” the professors say. “One struggles to think of a case of public scandal more obvious than the behaviour of Mr. Rose.”

When approached by the Episcopal News Service, a Sewanee spokeswoman said that the university had no additional statement to make following the professors’ letter.

Yesterday (Thursday) more than more than 70 students, seminarians and staff staged a protest against the Regents’ decision. Many laid their gowns on the steps of All Saints’ Chapel and said they would not wear them again until the honorary degree is revoked.