June 23, 1997
by Alice M. Smith*
ATLANTA (UMNS) -- In the future, United Methodist pastors and chaplains who serve the churches and chapels at Emory University and Oxford College will have the authority to determine what religious ceremonies take place in those sacred spaces.
That's the unanimous compromise approved in Atlanta June 19 by the Emory University Board of Trustees after the denomination's North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference called on Emory President William M. Chace to reverse his decision that would have allowed same-sex union ceremonies on the campuses at Emory and Oxford, a division of Emory University.
Although not spelled out specifically, the agreement in effect prohibits same-sex covenant ceremonies from taking place in the churches and chapels since United Methodist clergy are bound to uphold the doctrine and polity of the United Methodist Church.
"The board of trustees made it very clear," said North Georgia Bishop G. Lindsey Davis, "they want those sacred facilities, when they're used for religious services, rites, ceremonies, weddings, funerals, to be under the Discipline of the United Methodist Church and by United Methodist ministers."
Neither he nor the church, Davis noted, wanted to "deprive gays and lesbians of their civil rights. But I do want the polity of our church to be respected, and I think this action does just that."
The United Methodist Book of Discipline clearly states, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
Should a chaplain or pastor allow a ceremony on campus that is contrary to United Methodist doctrine, he/she would be "accountable to an annual conference and a bishop and a board of ordained ministry the same way any other United Methodist minister is," Davis said.
On the Emory campus the consecrated spaces include Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, Cannon Chapel and the hospital chapels. At the Oxford campus they include the Day Prayer Chapel and Allen Memorial United Methodist Church.
The controversy that precipitated the agreement arose when Dean William Murdy of Oxford College refused to allow a gay marriage ceremony in Day Chapel, citing as one reason the fact that the United Methodist Church does not recognize such unions.
Chace reversed that decision, stating such a denial of the use of the facilities violated Emory's Equal Opportunity Policy. In response, North Georgia Methodists in their annual session July 12 called on Chace to reverse his decision and asked the board of trustees to take up the matter if he did not.
A series of meetings followed that resulted in the compromise agreement. Davis met privately with Chace and board of trustees chairman Brad Currey June 16, but it was during a meeting two days later attended by other bishops on the board of trustees and Emory University officials that the compromise was hammered out. In addition, the board of trustees spent several hours refining the agreement the next day before releasing it at a press conference.
"I feel good about what happened," Davis said. "It doesn't answer all the questions. There are more discussions that we'll have down the road, but I believe we have a framework in place that will honor the integrity and values of both the church and the university."
It's a statement, he acknowledged, that won't please everybody. Gays and lesbians will feel the policy is discriminatory, while more conservative United Methodists will object to the fact the policy does not cover all facilities on campus.
One aspect of the policy says guidelines for the use of the chapels -- described as "multipurpose facilities" since they serve both religious and secular purposes -- will be developed and presented to the full board this fall. Until that time, said Currey, no weddings -- heterosexual or homosexual -- will likely take place at the chapels.
Early news coverage by television and radio focused on that statement and included the churches on the two campuses in the no-wedding ban. This in turn caused a flood of calls, particularly anguished Glenn church members who were concerned that nuptials could not take place at the church.
Davis said the guidelines that would be developed referred more to non-religious events that could take place in the chapels.
"I'm concerned about the use of sacred space for other events that have nothing to do with same-sex covenant ceremonies but have to do with other events that might be totally appropriate in a multi-purpose secular facility but would be inappropriate in a consecrated facility," he said.
Imparting a sense of the sacred to students should be part of their education at Emory, Davis said. "We do them a disservice by not introducing them to that concept. It's part of what it means to be a civil human being. ... They may reject our attempt to teach in this area, but we have a commitment to do that."
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* Smith is executive director of the Georgia United Methodist Communications Council.