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Priest's stand costs him a job
Rome school, chaplain split over column on gay bishop

The Rev. John Merchant looks over photos unpacked from his recent move. He left Darlington School over controversy surrounding his column in support of a gay bishop.

ROME -- John Merchant, an Episcopal priest, accepted the job as chaplain at the Darlington School in Rome last summer. He was forced to resign and kicked off campus nine weeks later.

Merchant's troubles began when the student editor of Darlington's campus newspaper asked him to write a column about his views on homosexuality after the Episcopal Church's confirmation of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire.

Merchant, 57, supported the confirmation. He wrote that the Bible shouldn't always be interpreted literally and that God is more concerned with spirituality than sexual orientation.

I didn't have to ponder where I stood, he said in a recent interview in Decatur. But I took time to keep it brief and try to explain my beliefs. I was trying to convey it in a positive way.

Merchant resigned after the school administration asked him to meet with and apologize to dozens of people upset with the column.

Merchant said he thought about the administration's request and could come to only one conclusion: I felt the apologies were both morally and academically intolerable.

The column, published in the Sept. 3 issue of The Darlington, touched off the same kind of raw debate at the nondenominational school and in the Rome community that the Robinson confirmation has in the Episcopal Church and beyond.

The free speech issue has become such a divisive topic in this northwest Georgia community that Rome News-Tribune Editor John Druckenmiller criticized Darlington in a column titled A Failing Grade In Freedom of Speech 101.

The case angered James Polk of Atlanta, who has a daughter at Darlington.

This flies in the face of academic honesty and independent thought, which a first-rate school should protect, not persecute, said Polk, who won a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting in the 1970s for the Washington Star. I'm concerned that this sort of thing could debase the value of a Darlington degree in the eyes of the better colleges in this country.

Rome businessman Nathan Adler, who does not have a child at the school, has observed the debate. I'm happy to see both pros and cons concerning it, Adler said. What he said was not too overwhelming for a non-denominational school. It seemed he was an esteemed religious person. It seemed unjust.

Other were solidly behind the school's decision.

It seemed he was watering down the word of God, said Jeff Gable, 33, of Rome. From my background, I was taught the Bible was absolute. Now we're to think that wife-swapping is OK. That homosexuality is OK. That you can be gay and be a good Christian.

Any kind of leadership should condemn what the Episcopal Church is doing, said Gable, who does not have a child at the school. Couple that with what's going on in the Catholic Church, molesting young boys, and I worry.

After the column appeared, Merchant was told by school President David Hicks and Headmaster David Rhodes that some school donors were considering withdrawing their support of the academy, where tuition and board can run up to $27,000 annually. They said he had to apologize.

Specifically, we want you to initiate between 50 and 75 one-on-one meetings over the next 30 days, Rhodes and Hicks said in a Sept. 30 letter to Merchant. These meetings will be with those who have expressed dissent with your views, concern over your chaplaincy, or the intention to withdraw their children or support from the school.

Merchant provided the newspaper with copies of the correspondence.

Neither Rhodes nor Hicks responded to repeated requests for interviews. Calls were referred to Atlanta media consultant Chuck Nekvasil, who said, We believe in all sincerity, that it's time for the healing to begin and time to move on.

Four students also submitted columns to the paper. They were on gay marriages, with two against it and two expressing tolerance.

Faculty newspaper adviser Karen Rieley said she was stunned by the firestorm Merchant's column touched off. If you're asking did I know it would upset people, no I didn't, she said.

After Merchant's wife, a Rome native, died last year, he began looking for a change in his work. He resigned as headmaster at St. George's Episcopal School in Griffin to take the Darlington job because he wanted a place to reflect, to teach, to learn and eventually to retire.

He thought his column contributed to the atmosphere of academic and intellectual debate he expected to find at the school, an equivalent of Atlanta schools such as Lovett or Westminster.

He said he was stunned by the administration's reaction.

I felt like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, said Merchant, who received a financial settlement and has moved to Decatur, close to his daughter's home in Avondale Estates. They said I had caused a terrible situation for Darlington and it was up to me to get them out of it. I was speechless.

At 6:45 p.m. Oct. 7, Rhodes went by Merchant's campus apartment and told him the administration wanted him off campus the next day. Merchant complied.

When I got in my car to leave, I have never felt so utterly alone, Merchant said.

A history teacher, Merchant couldn't help but see the irony in the price he paid for writing the column. I had spent the first weeks in class teaching religious tolerance, dealing with the settlement of the Colonies, Merchant said.

Full credit for this Wife Swapping news article goes to:Atlanta Journal Constitution

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