Professors in Sewanee's School of Theology have entered the debate over whether the university should revoke an honorary degree that it gave to broadcast journalist Charlie Rose in 2016.
The board of regents at Sewanee: The University of the South wrote a letter last week that opposed rescinding the honor. The issue came up after Rose was accused of sexual misconduct in November, including groping and exposing himself to several former female colleagues.
The university is governed by the Episcopal church, and a letter sent by the school's board last week referred to the school's religious roots in announcing the decision to allow Rose to keep the degree, calling for forgiveness rather than punishment.
"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 letter read. "If we condemn a person, then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?"
Jim Turrell, a professor of liturgy at Sewanee, says he would have likely disagreed, quietly, with any argument the board and administration made against revoking Rose's honors. But once they brought religion into it, he felt compelled to speak out.
"What I think my colleagues and I wished for was a more nuanced theology," Turrell said.
So every tenured faculty member of the university's seminary, including Turrell, signed an open letter Tuesday that protests the board's decision.
"Respectfully, we must insist that there is a hierarchy of sin, long recognized in the tradition," they write. "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 argue that because the sins became so public, it is "a reason to send a message." And Turrell said he doesn't think it's the university's place to offer Rose forgiveness.
"No one would be saying that Charlie Rose is not welcome to come to church, is not a child of God, is not loved by God. But we also want some attention to the grave things that he's done," he said.
Sewanee President John McCardell, who co-signed the original letter on behalf of the board, calls the divinity school letter "constructive and respectful."
"It’s too soon to say what effect this might have on the governing board, but I know they are listening," he said.
Despite the difference of opinion, Turrell says he's encouraged to see board members, faculty and even students debating the issue in theological terms. An opinion piece written by a student for Sewanee's newspaper references the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and the Bible.
Students are also planning to protest the board's decision at a rally on Thursday afternoon.