August 23, 2004
57, Number 1
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August 23, 2004
UMC still partners in truth
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.”