Emory Report

 June 23, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 34

Emory and the United Methodist
Church grapple with legal
and traditional ties

When an Oxford College employee was denied the use of Oxford College facilities to hold a same-sex commitment ceremony last month, the decision had many repercussions on the Emory and Oxford campuses.

The decision's most immediate impact, of course, was felt by the Oxford College employee, his partner, and their families and friends. President Bill Chace apologized to the employee and his partner and issued a statement regarding the situation (see the President's Statement on page 5).

But the initial, internal conflicting points of view regarding the request to use University facilities for the ceremony raised a major issue that the University is now working to address and clarify within its community: What exactly is Emory's relationship with the United Methodist Church?

The fact that misunderstandings can grow out of interpreting the complex relationship between an educational institution and a related religious denomination isn't surprising, says Candler School Dean Kevin LaGree. He pointed out that clear distinctions must be made between church doctrine and policy on the one hand and University policies and procedures on the other.

The United Methodist Church's (UMC) doctrine and policy, contained in its Book of Discipline, govern the life and operation of the denomination. Through its doctrine and its governing policies (referred to as "church polity"), the denomination organizes and governs its churches, laity and clergy.

Emory is a separate, educational institution governed by policies established and overseen by its Board of Trustees, which are implemented by guidelines and procedures directed by the University's officers and administrators. For example, in addressing the misunderstanding regarding the Oxford employee's use of University facilities, Chace cited the University's equal opportunity policy, which was established by the Board of Trustees in 1993. The policy includes sexual orientation as a protected category in terms of employment, admissions and educational programs. The policy also states that "students, faculty and staff are assured of participation in University programs and in use of facilities without such discrimination."

Of all the University's schools, the School of Theology may be the one most closely related to the denomination through its historical role as a primary theological school for the United Methodist Church and through annual support from the denomination. Still, while related to the UMC, Candler's mission is to educate faithful and creative leaders for church ministry in a variety of Christian denominations and to engage in creative scholarship and teaching of the highest academic quality. While a majority of its students are United Methodists, students from more than 30 denominations were enrolled at Candler during the past academic year, and the school has programs in Lutheran, Episcopal and Baptist studies. The Candler faculty similarly represent a broad cross-section of Christian denominations and while a majority of the faculty are ordained, many are not. Members of the Candler faculty enjoy the same academic freedom for their research and teaching as any Emory faculty member.

Emory's legal and traditional ties with the church

The United Methodist Church has committed itself to higher education since its beginnings in the United States in 1784. One of its first acts was to found a college and, as the denomination spread westward with the expansion of the United States, it established both churches and colleges and universities. Although Emory was founded by the Georgia Methodist Conference in 1836, the University community currently is religiously diverse with more than 20 registered religious groups on campus.

The history of Emory's founding and early years is important in understanding our current relationship with the UMC. In 1914 Vanderbilt University split with the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (one of the predecessors to the UMC) over the issue of whether the conference had the power to appoint Vanderbilt trustees. The Supreme Court of Tennessee sided with Vanderbilt, giving the UMC the right only to ratify selections made by the board itself. As a result, the UMC set up an educational commission to identify two new universities in the Southeast, ultimately selecting Emory-which moved from Oxford to Atlanta and created Candler-and Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. In order to prevent a future "loss" of a primary university and theological seminary, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South entered into specific legal relationships with Emory and SMU.

UMC's support of academic freedom

What does that mean to Emory today? Emory is closely related to the UMC legally through the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference (SEJ) of the UMC (SEJ is a successor to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South). Emory is not "owned" by the church because a charitable, nonprofit corporation cannot be owned, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in a ruling several years ago identified Emory as an integral "part of and agency" of the UMC (the phrase means that the IRS treats Emory like a church body for certain tax purposes, although Emory is not a church).

Functionally, the SEJ must confirm the appointment of new Emory trustees, has the right to remove trustees "for cause" and may disapprove changes in the University's charter. The SEJ cannot select individuals to serve on the board. Traditionally the church has been represented on the board by a number of bishops, one of whom has historically served as vice chairman. In addition to providing representatives to the board, last year the United Methodist Church gave $1.4 million to Candler and the Georgia United Methodist Church gave $88,099 to Oxford College.

"Emory is under no obligation, nor has the University ever been asked, to modify its policies regarding research or academic issues when they diverge from church doctrine," said University Secretary Gary Hauk, who works closely with Emory's board. "To my knowledge, the SEJ has never removed an Emory board member or vetoed a nomination and has not interfered in University affairs," said Hauk. He went on to note that the UMC honors academic freedom and makes a distinction between church advice/recommendations and church doctrine. For example, the North Georgia United Methodist Conference in a recent resolution expressed "strong disagreement and extreme displeasure" with Chace's statement regarding the use of University facilities for a same-sex commitment ceremony. "The resolution is nonbinding and serves as an example of how individual bishops and the UMC give the Board of Trustees feedback on Emory's policies and administration," said Hauk.

Traditionally the UMC has supported Emory in issues of academic freedom, most notably during the "God is Dead" controversy in 1965. At that time, Emory College religion professor Thomas Altizer was a leader of a small group of young theologians calling themselves Christian atheists. Their philosophy was expounded in a Time magazine cover story, "Is God Dead?," which set off an international controversy. Emory President Sanford Atwood supported Altizer's right to his beliefs on the basis of academic freedom and was backed by Candler Dean William Cannon, who wrote a 1,400-word statement that was published in the Atlanta paper a week after the Time magazine article. In addition to a strong defense of academic freedom, Cannon emphasized that Altizer's appointment was in the college not the theology school, and that he was neither a Methodist nor a clergyman, therefore "free from ecclesiastical direction."

LaGree noted that "Bishop Cannon's ringing defense of academic freedom at Emory was consistent with the freedom almost invariably given to colleges and universities related to the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations. The denomination has rightly kept itself out of the governance and administration of the institutions of higher education related to it, even on controversial issues," he continued.

"One of Methodism's traditional strengths has been its preference for conferring with those with whom it disagrees rather than attempting to coerce them. As Bishop Cannon affirmed in his article, 'Even in religion, we ought to be confronted with ideas with which we violently disagree. One learns more from reading the works of thinkers who disturb and challenge him than from thinkers who confirm his own opinions.," LaGree said.

Grappling with social issues

Academic freedom, although fraught with its own emotional pitfalls, perhaps is a more clear-cut issue than some of the turbulent social issues that the UMC-and society as a whole-has dealt with in the past few decades. In recent years societal debates over issues of civil rights and religious doctrine have caused some degree of tension between the University and its alumni, United Methodists, and other members of the public. These issues have included academic freedom, the differences between what is taught in the theology school versus the liberal arts division of the college, higher visibility of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in society, and genetic patenting.

In 1992 when the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Life was expanded, and again in 1995 when the Emory Board of Trustees approved the extension of health care and courtesy scholarship benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of Emory employees, many questioned how Emory could support this office given its relationship with the UMC. United Methodists were especially concerned when an advertisement in the local newspaper advertised the office director's position as an "educator for the University and advocate for nonheterosexual life." The University clarified the fact that the director would be an advocate speaking on behalf of people who often feel they cannot speak for themselves.

"Emory parallels the church-and society as a whole-in struggling with social issues,' said Saralyn Chesnut, the director of the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Life. "Right now the issues of civil rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and recognition of our long-term committed relationships, are the focus of a national conversation about rights and values in our evolving society. In this sense the debate over same-sex commitment ceremonies is a small part of a much greater dialogue. At Emory, it's also part of the process we're struggling with: How do we all learn and grow to form our own identities, yet manage to live together in a community with shared values and goals," said Chestnut. "My job is to ensure that the voices of lesbians, gays and bisexuals are part of the conversation that helps build and strengthen the Emory community."

When questions about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues arose in the campus community five years ago, LaGree clarified the denomination's policy and the University's position in a statement that is still current:

"The policy of the UMC presently states that 'the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.' At the same time, the denomination has affirmed the fundamental human dignity of homosexual persons by stating that 'homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are persons of sacred worth.' The same section of the policy also restates the denomination's historical commitment to 'minister for and with all persons' and also denounces the harassment of gays and lesbians and supports the civil and human rights of homosexual persons as a clear issue of simple justice.

"The Emory policy reflects the University's Christian heritage to be compassionate to all people and to protect all people's dignity as part of its community. It is also consistent with the University's educational mission, for Emory must deal thoughtfully with this question, one with which our entire society is struggling," concluded LaGree.

As to where we go from here, Chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe, an ordained United Methodist minister, views the current debate as part of the UMC's character as a body that believes in the importance of conversation and meeting in conference. "Both the University and the church have a commitment together to the search for knowledge, nurturing intellectual and moral life, and the pursuit of justice. Methodism's historic commitment to the uniting of knowledge and vital piety for service in a pluralistic world is the cornerstone on which Emory as a church-related university is built. Both institutions are strengthened by their unique missions and historic commitment to a relationship marked by the presence of these principles," said Henry-Crowe.

-Nancy Seideman

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