Emory Report
August 23, 2004
Volume 57, Number 1


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August 23, 2004
Emory, UMC still partners in truth

By Michael Terrazas

John Wesley never had to harvest a stem cell. He never injected an AIDS vaccine into a rhesus macaque. Nor did the founder of United Methodism ever probe the historical truth of the Holocaust, or grapple with what it means to be an open, ecumenical institution in a post-9/11 world.

But what Wesley did do is establish an orientation toward the Christian faith that prized education, that engaged and sought to transform its contemporary context rather than withdraw from it, that embraced rather than feared the generation of new knowledge. More than two centuries after Wesley’s death, this guiding principle—of educating leaders in the world, of the world and for the world—still helps places like Emory walk the ethical tightropes that inevitably pop up in the world of top-tier research universities.

Since its founding in 1836 by the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church or UMC), Emory sometimes has ventured into moral arenas that have tested and even strained its ties to the church, but as the University looks forward into the 21st century, it points to this relationship as one that will only help its progress.

“We are a University that has a good deal of its character attributable to Wesleyan teachings and principles,” President Jim Wagner said. “There is a compatibility between research and the United Methodist Church; the church preaches to us the value of knowledge, and tells us that you don’t have to view that knowledge through a particular set of doctrines or dogma.”

In fact, Wesleyan tradition encourages exactly the opposite; from their earliest days, Methodist institutions of higher education eschewed sectarian policies for ecumenical ones, perhaps relying upon the church for a certain ethos in administration but seeking out different denominations in their student and faculty populations.

In light of this worldview, it’s no accident that of the nation’s top-tier research universities, those that still claim
a religious affiliation are almost exclusively Methodist related: In addition to Emory, American, Boston, Duke, Southern Methodist and Syracuse universities all are Methodist institutions, as are roughly 125 other colleges and universities in the United States and some 300 around the world.

“The Methodists got into the education game late, but when they did they were serious about it,” said Dean Russell Richey of the Candler School of Theology. “They decided to found universities and put their seminaries in those contexts, where the frontiers of knowledge are pushed back, where there’s a diversity of intellectual perspectives, where there’s a kind of free-for-all of the mind.”

Candler is one of 13 UMC seminaries in the United States, and in addition to his duties as dean, Richey serves as a de facto relations officer between Emory and the church, as represented by the Georgia Conferences and the UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction. There are other facets of the relationship, both traditional and explicit, that tie the two institutions together. More than half of Emory’s trustees are Methodists (clergy and laity), and the vice-chair customarily has been a UMC bishop. Also:

Candler receives about $1.5 million each year from the UMC.

Emory College supports the Methodist Ministerial Scholarship, which covers up to 45 percent of tuition for children of active or deceased Methodist clergy.

the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church annually supports the University Scholar-Teacher Award, given each year at Commencement (nursing’s Laura Porter Kimble won the award this year).

the University chaplain (Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and religious life) is United Methodist.

the Southeastern Jurisdiction approves new Emory trustees.

In short, ties between the University and the church are strong. Within such a close relationship, however, it is inevitable that disagreements occur, even given the Wesleyan tradition.

One such instance arose in 1997, when Emory and parts of the UMC differed on whether to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies in University chapels. The resulting policy states that such chapels on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses would allow services of the officially recognized campus religious groups. This not only resolved the situation at hand but provided a framework for settling comparable disputes in the future.
Despite the passions stirred on both sides of that debate, the experience turned out to be, in fact, a positive one for Emory-UMC relations.

“The church is not the university, and the university is not the church,” said Bishop Lindsey Davis, an Emory trustee. “These are different organizations and systems in partnership with one another, and you try to find resolution on controversial issues that pays respect to the values of both institutions. It’s not always easy, but it is well worth the effort. And, over the years, I’ve found it extremely rewarding.”

Davis’ word choice—“partnership”—is particularly helpful when trying to understand the relationship between Emory and the church. Richey said new metaphors are needed to envision the bond since established images like “sect” or “church-state” are not accurate, and in particular the notion of a sectarian relationship between the UMC and Emory is not (and likely never was) applicable.

In fact, Richey said, influence flows just as freely from the University to the church as vice versa.

“That is absolutely true,” Richey said, citing the same-sex issues as one example but also reaching back to bitter quarrels about segregation, race and gender from decades past. “We train the church’s leadership. The scholarship here is important for the church’s life. The University could play a more constructive role in trying to articulate or provide metaphors for this relationship.”

“A lot of what the church thinks about the world is greatly influenced by the University; it’s definitely a two-way street,” Davis agreed. “The relationships between the church and its colleges and universities have changed a good bit in the last 50 years, and the nature of that relationship in the 21st century is still evolving.”

Indeed, as Emory embarks on a quest to fulfill its vision statement and become a university not only inquiry driven but also ethically engaged, a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the UMC could become even more important.

“The big picture is that the university is a place that invites people from all perspectives to pursue truth,” Wagner said. “In some places, it’s politically incorrect to pursue broader truths that deal with ethics and morals and elements of the spiritual. The relationship with the United Methodist Church ensures that our pursuit of truth spans all of human experience, including scientific, medical,
historical, literary and spiritual truth.”