Discussion examines Millsaps, church ties


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

A great starting point.

That’s how an audience member described a panel discussion held March 27 at Millsaps College that addressed academic freedom and what it means to be a United Methodist college. Most of those attending the event seemed to agree.

“It was a good starting point, but barely scratched the surface,” said Jonathan Webb, a junior from Jackson, Tenn. 

“I think our purpose was accomplished,” said Dr. James Bowley, chair of the Religious Studies department at Millsaps. “It was a good, intellectual discussion with many people in a full, open, peaceful setting.”

The department began getting letters about some of the speakers it has helped bring to the Jackson campus over the past few years, most recently following the October appearance of Bishop John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop noted for his controversial views on Christianity. The department decided to host the forum as a means of considering the relationship between the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church and Millsaps.

“This showed the diversity of opinions within The United Methodist Church,” said Bowley. “There is a diversity of opinions about Millsaps and what kind of college it should be.”

Bowley served as moderator of the event. Panelists included:

  • The Rev. Sam Morris, senior pastor at Columbus First UMC who attended Millsaps for two years
  • The Rev. Vicki Hughes, senior pastor at Hattiesburg Main Street UMC and a Millsaps graduate
  • The Rev. Dr. Loye Ashton, a deacon in The United Methodist Church and professor of religion at Tougaloo College and a former Millsaps faculty member
  • The Rev. Tommy Artmann, senior pastor at Hattiesburg Heritage UMC, a Millsaps graduate
  • The Rev. Bruce Case, senior pastor at Hattiesburg Court Street UMC
  • Dr. Connie Campbell, professor of mathematics at Millsaps and a member of Parkway Hills UMC in Madison
  • Ashley Hewitt, a Millsaps student from Mandeville, La., and a United Methodist

About 60 spectators, including students, faculty and several Jackson-area United Methodist pastors, attended the discussion.

Each panelist was given a few minutes to make an opening statement answering the questions:

  • What control should The United Methodist Church exercise over the faculty and programming of Millsaps or other Methodist colleges, such as religious requirements for faculty or programming requirements?
  • How do you think the ideals and mission of The United Methodist Church relate to the ideals and mission of Millsaps, and other United Methodist colleges, which currently has a non-discrimination policy that includes religion?

Artmann said that in preparing for the event he had talked to several parents of college-age students, and the main attitude was one of disappointment in Millsaps. He said they all expressed a concern that Millsaps would undermine their children’s faith. Even his daughter expressed the same sentiment, he said.

Hewitt, however, said that her faith had grown since arriving at Millsaps and taking courses in religious studies.

Campbell said she sees Millsaps as a mission of the church, but not a part of it. “If the church sees the college as an arm of itself, we have a problem,” she said. “We’re not here to proselytize.

“I’ve never had a student say ‘Millsaps caused me to lose my faith,’ but I have had them say they learned to articulate their faith.”

Morris was the first to directly address Spong’s appearance, saying he was disappointed no counter to Spong’s beliefs was offered.

Later, faculty members in the audience pointed out the names of orthodox Christian thinkers who had spoken at Millsaps. Morris acknowledged that, but said media attention on Spong overshadowed others.

Ashton emphasized religious diversity. “No student’s faith should be attacked,” he said. “At the same time, no student’s faith should be a bulwark they hide behind.”

Following the opening statements, the floor was opened for questions from the audience and panelists. Several questioned Spong’s appearance and an earlier appearance by Marcus Borg, specifically asking why they were even invited to speak. Bowley explained that often speakers are made available by outside groups, such as the Dykes Foundation which co-sponsored Spong’s appearance. He said taking advantage of these offers enables Millsaps to bring in speakers who are at the forefront of religious conversations.

John Thatamanil, also a former religious studies faculty member, asked, “How might we work to create a distinctively church-related college without betraying Methodist principles?”

Kay Barksdale, director of church relations for the college, said she learned some things from the event. “I learned that we are not telling the church nearly enough about who we are, and we need to find ways to do that better,” she said.

“The forum was an open, honest conversation between the church and the academy – long overdue,” Barksdale continued. “If those who participated can now see the college in a more positive light, that would help what I do at Millsaps. And hopefully, we can continue the conversation. The forum could be a starting point for a stronger partnership between Millsaps and the United Methodists.” 

Webb, the student from Tennessee, said the event raised some important questions. “We need to consider who we (choose) to bring in or, more importantly, what the college is doing in the classroom to support our faith.”

Bowley said he’s open to having more discussions with the conference. “If people want to do it, that’s what Millsaps does,” he said. “We talk and articulate ideas.”