Can InterVarsity leaders seek doctrinal unity with staff and volunteers? On sex, CBC says 'no'

It’s summer time, which means that it's camp time for many children and the adults who run zillions of camps around the United States and Canada.

Many such camps are run by Christian denominations and parachurch ministries, not the least of which is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), better known for reaching out to college students.

It turns out that the huge sex debate that has embroiled InterVarsity here in the States has reached up into Canada where IVCF runs a string of summer camps for youth.

Although this piece by CBC Radio-Canada ran two months ago, it pertains to how culture wars on human sexuality are very much being fought this summer.

A group of alumni from one of Ontario's largest Christian summer camps is fighting to end an anti-gay policy that requires staff to condemn "homosexual and lesbian sexual conduct" if a camper asks them about it.
Volunteer and paid staff at Ontario Pioneer Camp in Port Sydney, Ont., must sign a code of conduct that says "homosexual and lesbian sexual conducts are not to be practised" and staff "should not in any way espouse, endorse or imply acceptance" of what the policy says "should be avoided." 

So there are several words that are missing in this news report so far. Can you guess what they might be? 

"This very narrow, firm stance on homosexuality is wrong," argues Michelle Dowling, a former camper and staff member.
She helped start OnePioneer, the group pushing for LGBT inclusion at the camp they otherwise love.
"It really held me back for a number of years in accepting myself," Dowling told CBC Toronto. The 28-year-old was wrestling with her own sexuality the last time she signed the contract in 2011.

It’s 14 paragraphs into the story when we get a quote from an InterVarsity official. By the way, we are still looking for some key religious terms, as well. 

(Al) Anderson says Inter-Varsity has just spent a "lengthy" time re-evaluating its staff code of conduct.
"We've come to the conclusion that we continue to affirm the values that we've had for the whole of our existence of Inter-Varsity -- the traditional evangelical position," Anderson said. "There's no change coming."
What has changed, Anderson said, is how future staff will be trained.
"Our leadership and training has been redesigned to have a significant unit where people can enter into that discussion and wrestle with their convictions," said Anderson. "There's a lot of room in that community to have safe arguments and discussions around the topic."
But in the end, Anderson said, volunteers will still have to sign the existing code of conduct to work at camp.

So this dispute is about a traditional evangelical code of conduct. Might this have something to do with the Bible and centuries of traditional Christian doctrine? The language used in this CBC report is strikingly secular and businesslike. 

The article then concentrates on three volunteers: One the former assistant camp director who refuses to work there because of InterVarsity’s stance; one a former camper and staff member and another a would-be volunteer who was turned away 10 years ago because she was living “an out lifestyle.”

Near the end, an attorney for the local Human Rights Legal Support Centre is interviewed on whether what InterVarsity is doing is illegal.

So here you have an article loaded with four voices on one side of the issues and one voice on the other. And the former get all the good quotes -- framing the story in terms of individual rights, not the rights of a religious community -- while the latter sounds like a machine.

It’s too bad the article didn’t mention the enormous debate InterVarsity had south of the border during 2016 when the same drama played out in the ministry’s American component, with both sides weighing in. There was a lot of good material CBC could have drawn from with a few clicks of a mouse.

For instance, the lawyer quoted in the piece must have known that InterVarsity has felt compelled, on the advice of its lawyers, to make its doctrines very clear and to enforce them. As explained in this piece from The American Conservative, federal law in the States makes you have a blanket policy that applies across the board to all situations (even volunteers at a camp), or the courts will rule against you because of all the exceptions. Doesn’t the Canadian lawyer get that the organization believes that if it doesn't take a stand, it could be sued out of existence?

Here at GetReligion, we’ve written a lot previously about InterVarsity’s much-publicized rulings on the positions staff must take on human sexuality -- plus the larger issue of doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that people must sign before they work for similar organizations.

It seems that the writers and producers of this piece did no research other than quote a few of the major players. Even a HuffPost piece on the same issue had more meat in it.

Summer camps are times for a child to be out from under their parent’s umbrella. When I was attending them as a teenager, we often had long discussions with our counselors about all sorts of things. As the article said, sexuality is an issue that does come up.

Dowling and a friend decided to collect stories from former campers and staff about their experiences dealing with LGBT issues at camp. 
"I can imagine the shame and the hopelessness that kids feel when they're told that, you know, 'God didn't make you this way' or 'You haven't done anything wrong yet,'" said Dowling, because that's what she was told.

The former assistant leader of the camp decided last summer she disagreed with InterVarsity’s decision.

She and two other members of the leadership team were told they'd have to leave, but the next morning senior staff reversed their decision.
The three women were told they could stay for the summer, but that staff should stop talking about sexuality.

So obviously those discussions were already happening between staff and the youth they were counseling. The article did quote former assistant leader as saying that, while she was aware of the stance InterVarsity had taken on sexual issues, she felt that volunteers and staff at a camp in backwoods Ontario weren’t bound by them.

But what if a counselor gives a gay-is-OK message to a youth and the youth reports it to his or her parents and the parents raise a stink because that’s not what they expected out of a Christian camp? Then word gets out to local or regional InterVarsity staff or even worse, the media, all the king’s horses aren’t going to be able to clean up that mess. So the ministry decided to do a pre-emptive strike by setting out what their standards are.

Problem is, those aren’t the same standards as much of the culture, nor of the thousands of people who marched in or attended Pride marches around the world this past Sunday.

The folks at CBC might not agree with IVCF but it could frame the ministry’s position in just as attractive a way as it explained the feelings of the OnePioneer folks. They could start by admitting that religious doctrines are involved in this dispute.

I looked at OnePioneer's web site and saw an implied threat on a link to the Ontario Camps Association about complaints it has received about the IVCF camp in that province. Look for Ontario Pioneer Camp's membership in the OCA to be revoked soon.

If and when more pressure is brought to bear on InterVarsity Canada, let's hope CBC will do a better job of interviewing experts on both sides of the issue.

 

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