Emory University, a school officially affiliated with the United Methodist Church (UMC), recently hired the Rev. Gregory W. McGonigle, a Unitarian Universalist, as its new university chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life. Appointed by President Claire Sterk, McGonigle is the first non-Methodist chaplain in the university’s history and will begin work in August at the start of the fall semester.
Emory is a member of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church (NASCUMC), an association of 114 schools built to work cooperatively and in partnership with the church.
As a Unitarian Universalist, McGonigle will bring a pluralistic vision on religion that emphasizes generalized notions of spirituality to a school that is still formally affiliated with the UMC and is home to Candler School of Theology, one of 13 official United Methodist seminaries. According to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website, their members do not share common beliefs about God: some in fact, are atheist, while others use the term God to refer to “the creative power of evolution” or “simply the ultimate mystery within which we all must live.” It raises the question what is left of the Christian character of the university when it hires as a head of its religious life someone who distinctly does not adhere to any orthodox Christian faith.
McGonigle’s hiring is another step by Emory to move away from its Methodist and broader Christian heritage to form a post-Christian, pluralistic, and interfaith environment. All this is occurring despite the university’s continued formal ties to the UMC, which it does not hide or deny, ties that go far deeper than the work of the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life.
Notably, according to the university’s charter, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference must confirm all members of Emory’s Board of Trustees and also has the power to remove members of the Board. Though this would seem to indicate that the most traditional of the UMC’s American jurisdictions has sway over Emory, this is hardly the case. The power of confirmations seems to be largely a ceremonial one with no real weight these days, though Emory has continued the tradition of appointing the current bishop of the North Georgia Episcopal Area to the board (currently Sue Haupert-Johnson), and usually has a few other United Methodists included. The power of removal appears to never be used, meaning Emory’s secular trajectory will very likely continue.
Despite these ties, Georgia’s non-profit regulations and federal laws make it clear that the university is a separate and self-sustaining corporation not controlled by the United Methodist Church, according to Emory vice president and official historian, Gary Hauk.
So while McGonigle’s appointment does not violate any rules, it serves as a stark reminder of the waning influence of Methodism in one of the nation’s most prestigious universities with Methodist history, and home to an official seminary. Emory is not alone is this movement away from the UMC, either. Many NASCUMC schools continue to distance themselves from their denominational roots and publicly oppose decisions of the church. Before the special General Conference in February, NASCUMC’s presidents unanimously approved a letter asking the legislative body to affirm full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church. These presidents themselves are not necessarily Methodist or even Christian themselves, as it’s not a requirement for the office. Such a statement is nothing new; similar statements opposing the church’s traditional historic teachings on sexuality were also published in 2006, 2011, and 2013.
There has been talk about some nominally United Methodist colleges and universities fully disaffiliating from the church over issues of sexuality, but so far only one, Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, has done so. In light of how post-Christian most of these schools are, some evangelicals have asked how much of a loss such disaffiliations would actually be. With such a clear divide within the UMC in the United States, and numerous petitions exploring separation passed in annual conference gatherings, many of these schools may be compelled to pick a side in the coming years.