Over the treetops of Emory University’s Atlanta campus, the green steeple of Glenn Memorial Church is a constant reminder of Emory’s roots in the United Methodist Church (UMC). As the national body of the Christian denomination splits over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, some former members of Glenn’s congregation are calling on the University to challenge Glenn to openly defy the UMC’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, which prohibits the appointment of openly-gay clergy and officiation of LGBTQ weddings. 

While the student body today represents many different religions and cultures, the University’s foundational partnership with the UMC is ongoing. UMC leaders traditionally fill five chairs on Emory’s Board of Trustees. Currently, North Georgia United Methodist Conference (NGUMC) Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, who has the final say on ordaining and appointing clergy to local churches, sits on the Board. 

Emory also funds the upkeep of Glenn’s sanctuary building, where the University’s annual drag show is hosted. Emory’s ownership allows Glenn to host same-sex weddings in their sanctuary, as long as the couple brings in their own officiant. Other churches, whose space is subsidized by the UMC, do not have this ability under the Book of Discipline’s rules.

Glenn is a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a network of over 1,000 UMC-affiliated churches seeking to include LGBTQ people in their ministries to varying extents. Additionally, Emory’s Office of LGBTQIA+ Life awarded Glenn their “Outstanding Ally of the Year Award” in 2015 “for its creation of an inclusive, respectful and safe climate for the Emory LGBTQIA+ community.” 

Still, some former Glenn members claim that, by abiding by the Book of Discipline, Glenn fails to align with the University’s Equal Opportunity and Discriminatory Harassment Policy, which states that Emory “will not tolerate discrimination against or harassment of any individual or group based upon gender … sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression … or any factor that is a prohibited consideration under applicable law.”

The Glenn Memorial Church. (Sophia Guerieri/Contributing Photographer)

History of the UMC’s fight over LGBTQ inclusion

Over the past 50 years, UMC-affiliated churches’ stance on LGBTQ inclusion has been a source of impassioned debate among national and local leaders alike, but only recently has it resulted in a fracture. At the UMC’s General Conference in 1972, the delegates updated the Book of Discipline to state that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Therefore, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” and “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

At a special 2019 conference to address the Book of Discipline’s rules regarding sexual orientation, the UMC’s conservative majority passed the Traditional Plan, which set a punishment of a year’s suspension without pay if the Church’s Judicial Council found that a clergy member officiated a same-sex wedding. After progressive and centrist churches pushed back, the Judicial Council placed a moratorium on charges brought against clergy accused of presiding over same-sex weddings from 2020 to 2024. 

In response, UMC leaders across the globe who opposed LGBTQ ordination and marriage founded the Global Methodist Church (GMC) on May 1, 2020. At this year’s annual NGUMC on June 2, NGUMC leaders ratified the disaffiliation of 70 churches, about 9% of the churches in the Conference. Not all will join the GMC — some may opt to join other Methodist movements, like the Free Methodist Church U.S.A., while others chose to remain unattached. 

This local movement from conservative Georgia churches mirrors a national trend. In Florida, 14 churches have disaffiliated and 106 filed a lawsuit on July 14, asking to leave the UMC immediately without paying required apportionments and pension liabilities. Candler School of Theology Assistant Dean of Methodist Studies Brett Opalinski (98T), who served as a minister and a board member on the Florida UMC’s (FLUMC) Board of Ordained Ministry for 12 years, which reviews candidates for ordained ministry, said that he has witnessed a rise in conversation around the ordination of openly gay people in the FLUMC. 

Opalinski was appointed as a delegate for the UMC’s 2020 General Conference, which has been postponed to 2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As more conservative institutions are leaving the UMC, he said that progressive leaders are hopeful that the Book of Discipline’s wording will be changed during the 2024 conference. 

“What I expect is going to happen is that some of what’s been referred to as the ‘harmful language’ in the Book of Discipline that speaks to LGBTQ+ persons is going to be removed,” Opalinski said.

Candler Dean Jan Love said that this change would make it legal for UMC clergy to officiate same-sex weddings and for Haupert-Johnson to appoint openly gay clergy, something Love said she believes the bishop will be more than willing to do. 

“She is sworn to uphold the discipline, but she overlooks various disobedient acts,” Love said.

In fact, Love said Haupert-Johnson was “very sympathetic” to a Methodist priest who recently came out as transgender and let him continue to serve in the church she appointed him to.

“It was a big deal because he was put at risk by making that public declaration,” Love said. “The bishop we had before Bishop Sue probably would have taken his ordination away … so, gay and lesbian clergy in the United Methodist Church are still still in a category of being vulnerable.”

Until the wording is officially changed, UMC churches across the nation are split on whether to disobey the Book of Discipline’s rules barring openly-gay people from serving as Methodist clergy and officiating LGBTQ weddings. But, in Atlanta, many already are.

At St. Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown, clergy are allowed to preside over LGBTQ weddings on an elective basis, a decision that went into effect immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in 2015. St. Mark Pastor Joshua Noblitt (04T, 18T) said this was a necessary step, considering that an overwhelming majority — he estimated between 75% and 80% — of the church’s congregation is LGBTQ. 

Noblitt said that not permitting this congregational majority, “the heartbeat of our congregation,” to be married by church clergy “is just not right” and questioned what is accomplished by abiding the Book of Discipline’s rules regarding clerical appointments of LGBTQ persons and same-sex marriages.

“The question I think is important for all of us to ponder is what is the purpose of these rules?” Noblitt said. “For us to be able, at the end of the day, to say, ‘By God, we follow the rules?’ Or, is our purpose as a church to help people feel empowered, and loved and liberated and like a child of God? I mean, that seems to me that that is our purpose.”

For 15 years, Noblitt was the only openly gay UMC clergy member in the state. He has been a key figure in the global conversation around LGBTQ inclusion over the past 20 years, leading protests on the voting floor before delegates at general conferences with The Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a diverse partnership of 12 UMC Caucus groups “working for a just, inclusive and grace filled denomination.”

“When you know somebody that’s gay, and you see their life … a trans person, anybody who’s different, once you have a personal connection to that person, we can’t help but have our eyes open to some new possibilities,” Noblitt said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do, and we did have quite a bit of success around that.”

While Noblitt believes it is likely that the exclusive language in the Book of Discipline will be removed at the 2024 Conference, he said he dislikes the division in the Church.

“It’s good that we will see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of how we deal with this, but also just heartbreaking that we weren’t able to come to some kind of new understanding because we’re talking about people’s lives,” Noblitt said.

Criticisms of Glenn

Chase McKoon (23T), an intern at Glenn, wrote in an email to the Wheel that the last four years he’s worked in UMC institutions “has been nothing but pleasant.” He said that Glenn’s membership in the Reconciling Ministries Network is part of the reason he was drawn to work in the church. 

“My religious studies and my work at a wide variety of UMC-affiliated institutions has been extremely formative in discovering and developing an inclusive, affirming and welcoming personal and public theology postured towards the LGBTQIA+ community,” McKoon wrote.

Glenn’s head pastor Mark Westmoreland considers his church among the progressive congregations in the UMC vying for a change in the Book of Discipline’s wording. In the meantime, however, Westmoreland said he will abide by the Church’s rules. However, some former church members said Glenn is not going far enough to include LGBTQ people. 

Emory School of Law Adjunct Professor Nathan Hartman (00C, 06T, 06L, 07B) and Professor of Law George Shepherd left the Church in 2019 after it became clear that Westmoreland was unwilling to disregard the Book of Discipline’s rules. 

When Hartman asked Glenn clergy if they would hypothetically preside over his marriage to another man, he said he was told, “Politely, no.”

“What does it mean if every Methodist minister leaves the space?” Hartman said. “That is not their support, that is their contractual obligation with Emory to share the space with other faiths. What they’re saying is I can go to another faith who is not discriminating and ask them to marry me, but they are going to continue to discriminate.”

Shepherd, who was a member at Glenn for decades, has been an outspoken advocate for full LGBTQ inclusion and even circulated a petition asking for Glenn’s clergy to require Glenn to fully include LGBTQ people, garnering 406 signatures. In a 2021 email to Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law Tim Holbrook, Shepherd also suggested Glenn’s clergy be replaced by “chaired Emory professors of international stature,” as Harvard and Yale have done.

“Glenn, by deciding to continue to enforce these policies, is really complicit,” Shepherd said. “They are themselves discriminating. They can’t blame this on the United Methodist Church … and if Emory permits this to continue on, since Emory supports Glenn so richly, Emory itself is complicit in the homophobia also.”

Westmoreland said that while he understands people’s frustration that there has not been an immediate move to fully include LGBTQ church members, he believes the call to remove Glenn’s clergy was “extreme.” 

Glenn’s relationship with the University is important to Westmoreland. On “Emory-Glenn Sunday” on Sept. 18, Westmoreland gave a sermon titled “We’re so grateful to be able to share a life with a wonderful university.”

“I love Emory, I love being here and we want to be in relationship with the whole campus,” Westmoreland said. “Not everybody wants to be a part of this church — a lot of people don’t even know who we are — but we want to be here for this campus and be in ministry and offer care and grace to anyone who comes.”

Even with the moratorium, Westmoreland said people have still brought cases against clergy. After two non-Glenn UMC clergy gave speeches at a 2021 marriage ceremony between two men in Glenn’s sanctuary, opponents of same-sex marriage asked Haupert-Johnson to investigate. While the clergy members ended up being cleared because they had not officiated the wedding, Westmoreland said this instance shows the risk taken by clergy who choose to defy the UMC’s rules. 

Additionally, Love said that if the conservative majority doesn’t end up disaffiliating there could be cases brought retroactively against clergy members who preside over same-sex weddings during the moratorium.

This risk is a part of why Westmoreland chooses to not defy the Book of Discipline. While he said he’s never been approached by an LGBTQ couple to officiate a same-sex wedding, he would consider risking his position if he had a strong relationship with a couple who asked to be married. 

At the same time, he said that he wants to respect the Book of Discipline so that if the wording is changed, the other side will hold a similar respect for the new rules.

“I don’t want to ignore the Book of Discipline; I want to change the Book of Discipline,” Westmoreland said. “In my ministry, I’m not interested in simply doing a wedding in order to make a statement.”

With the possible change to the Book of Discipline’s language on the horizon, some UMC-affiliated churches in Atlanta have chosen to move ahead with full inclusion, leaving former church members like Hartman and Shepherd to question where Emory stands in the conversation of LGBTQ inclusion as a financial and administrative supporter of Glenn. 

“Emory defends itself and Glenn defends itself by saying, ‘Well, there’s lots of religions that discriminate against LGBT people and women and various minorities’ and the response to that is Emory does not provide outsized financial support to those institutions,” Hartman said. “The difference is that Emory is holding up Glenn by providing them far more financial support. So, it would be a different issue if all the faiths were financially treated equally, but they’re not, and that’s the problem.”

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Sarah Davis (22Ox, 24C) is a co-Editor-in-Chief of the Wheel. Previously, she interned with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Covington News and Austin Monthly Magazine. In her free time, you can find her exploring new running trails and coffee shops around the city.