The preliminaries: Alumni/ae of Columbia Theological Seminary have led worship I’ve attended and have officiated at my wedding, but I’m not otherwise affiliated.
The PCUSA seminary currently offers student housing in two forms: “married” housing and “single” housing. Its current policy is that only heterosexual married couples may live in “married” housing offered by the seminary. [Edited to say: Please see the comments below for more accurate information on the current policy.] Concerned alums and other Presbyterians, using the Twitter hashtag #opencts, have urged changing the policy to allow other families an equal chance to benefit from “married” housing.
My thoughts: Since most people think in words, it is of great importance that we must choose our words carefully. What we’re talking about, in this case, is housing which is suitable for several people to share.
People want to share housing for many reasons:
- A single parent wants to share housing with their children.
- A student with a physical disability may want to share housing with a caregiver.
- People in a committed relationship often (but not always) want to share housing with each other.
- Good friends who have no romantic or sexual interest in each other might want to share housing.
- Single people may want to share housing for the purpose of living as part of a household community.
Columbia Theological Seminary has a finite number of homes available which are suitable for sharing. It is reasonable, in my opinion, for CTS to establish a hierarchy of priorities. (For example, a student whose disability requires an in-home caregiver should probably get higher priority than a student who wants a roommate in order to be less lonely.) I would personally rank the first two situations together as highest priority, because living alone is simply not feasible for them. And I would rank the last two situations together as lowest priority, because while friendship and community are worthy goals, single housing would not disrupt a family.
As for families without children, it’s my opinion that Columbia Theological Seminary ought to provide them shared housing whenever possible. We might try to distinguish between “married couples without children” and “families without children”, namely by saying that all married couples have, by definition, been bonded by some sort of ritual which holds great significance to them, and which bond the rest of the world is morally obligated to respect. This much is true, but whether it is true only of married couples depends entirely on what we mean by “married”.
By a legal, secular definition of marriage, only couples consisting of one man and one woman would qualify. Should CTS use a legal, secular definition of marriage? I read Matthew 22:15-21 as saying no:
“This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” They said, “Caesar.” “Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”
Instead, I think it would be appropriate for a seminary to use a religious model for marriage. Christian weddings often include Ruth 1:16-17:
But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”
There may be no description of marriage (or, better yet, intentional family) more beautiful, and this passage has the additional merit of lending itself well to questions CTS could ask of families requesting shared housing on the basis that they are indeed a family:
- “Don’t force me to leave you” implies We’ve already been living together. Are you currently living together? If so, for how long? If not, why not?
- “Your people are my people” implies We regard each other’s family as our own. Do you celebrate holidays with each other’s family of origin? Do you visit them together? Do you exchange gifts or cards with them on a regular basis (birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas)?
- “Where you die, I’ll die” implies We intend to remain in this relationship for life. Have you made a lifelong commitment to each other and to your relationship? Do others know about it?
- “So help me God” implies This is a matter of religious significance to us. What religious significance does your relationship have?
By asking these questions of anyone who requests priority for shared housing because they have intentionally formed a family, Columbia Theological Seminary could assure itself that these are genuine families.
[Edited to add: I feel that the Ruth questions should be asked of all couples who request housing on the basis of their relationship, including mixed-gender couples who are accustomed to presenting a marriage license as sufficient evidence. I’m suggesting this not because I want to be rude to couples who are legally licensed to marry, but because I do NOT want same-gender couples to feel that they’re petitioning for a variance. I also think the housing committee would come to appreciate how similar (and how diverse) the answers are. And a couple need not answer all questions in the overwhelming affirmative: sometimes they have good reason for not associating with each other’s family (like a history of abuse) or disclosing their relationship to friends and neighbors in their hometown (like fear of persecution).]
It’s essential to avoid trapping ourselves into foregone conclusions by the words we choose. When we talk about “married” housing, we’ve already excluded significant categories of people who need or ought to live together. Instead, Columbia Theological Seminary would honor Christ by offering the hospitality of shared housing to those students who are most in need of it, including students who have intentionally formed a family.
(It has not escaped my attention that Ruth was affirming her non-genetic bond with someone who was also a woman—but that’s not the point. In Christ, there is neither male nor female. This isn’t about gender or genitalia, it’s about famiglia.)