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Pan-Methodist group struggles with implications of union


NOTE: For related coverage, see UMNS stories #155 and #156.

By Tom McAnally*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Cooperation is one thing, union another!

That was the observation of church leaders attending the second meeting of a new group bringing together two Pan-Methodist commissions, one on cooperation that has been operating since 1985, and another on union that began in 1996.

The 36-member Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union includes representatives of the three historically black denominations -- African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) and Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) -- and the predominantly white United Methodist Church. Black Methodists created their own denominations because of racism that existed in the main Methodist bodies of their day.

During their March 28-31 meeting in Nashville, the commissioners had a lively discussion about their direction and their understanding of union. They agreed to devote significant time during the next meeting to a discussion of "what union would look like."

At the commission's organizational meeting, a subgroup was asked to come up with some models of union. AMEZ Bishop Nathaniel Jarrett, of Tinley Park, Ill., questioned what models might be recommended. "We all seem to embrace a model of cooperation among our churches. ... It seems clear that we're not talking about organic union or structural merger." He compared the status of the churches to "households within the family, recognizing that as a family we work together."

The Rev. George Maize IV, an AMEZ pastor from Los Angeles, expressed concern that the black denominations would lose their cultural identity if the commission moves toward union. Instead of the covenant and commitment involved in "dating and marriage," he suggested, "Let's just be friends."

United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of Nashville, ecumenical officer for his denomination, said attention shouldn't be limited to what may be lost. "We can also gain something," he observed.

Jarrett, who has been involved in pan-Methodist conversations for several years, said he is open to possibilities of the future, but he added that objective analysis would suggest that at this point "merger is not a practical option." The commission has not identified any other models of union, he noted.

AMEZ Bishop Clarence Carr of St. Louis, serving a one-year term as president of the new combined commission, compared the work of the group to churning butter. With "mixing and shaking," he said, results would begin to emerge. Several members said the commission must go forward on the journey, even though their destination is unknown.

In a closing meditation, the Rev. Gloria Moore, an AMEZ laywoman from Knoxville, Tenn., asked, "Is this bigger than all of us?" Affirming the importance of holding fast to heritage and history, she said, "Our vision ought to be where we are going, where we go from here."

Carr represented his denomination at an Act of Repentance for Reconciliation during the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland. United Methodists apologized for historical acts of racism that prompted blacks to leave the predominantly white denomination and also for acts of racism within the church.

In response, Carr reminded the delegates and visitors that a tree is known by its fruit. "I'm not going to be a judge," he said, "but I want you to know we will be fruit inspectors."

In an interview with United Methodist News Service during the commission's meeting in Nashville, Carr said he applauded the United Methodists for their efforts to rid themselves of racism. Asked what "fruit" he has observed so far, he cited action by the United Methodist General Conference inviting members of the three black Methodist denominations to serve as voting members on churchwide agencies. "I applaud that," he said. "It's an important step."

More could be done in cooperation among the denominational publishing houses and to provide scholarships for inner-city youngsters, he said. "That's the generation we will have to prepare to keep this movement going."

He also pointed to the need for cooperation among church-related colleges and noted that cooperative campus ministry is "low fruit ready for the picking."

United Methodists announced that expenses would be paid for three college students from each of the historically black denominations to attend an annual meeting of college students this summer. The day before the gathering, the leadership team will meet with the nine students to explore cooperative efforts in the future.

Regarding union itself, Carr said there is an "honest recognition of issues still before us." While some apprehension exists, he said he also sees a "desire to move beyond."

Asked about the "journey" of the commission since its creation, Carr said, "I must confess we are further along than when I first came in 1997. My trust level has been enhanced by the relationships, and as I see it, that's where it's going to really culminate in a meaningful way." Acknowledging hills, valleys and roadblocks, he stressed that "relationship building is essential at all levels. It has to really reach the local level."

During the Nashville meeting, a large, diverse congregation gathered at Belmont United Methodist Church for a two-hour worship service featuring music from choirs representing the denominations and a rousing sermon by CME Bishop Paul A. Stewart of Birmingham, Ala.

Using the story of Joseph, Stewart said Methodists must move forward despite roadblocks such as racism. Quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Stewart said, "Racism is dead, but we've not been invited to the funeral nor have we seen the corpse." Like Joseph, he called on Methodists to pull off their shackles of defeated attitudes, hopelessness, suspicion, racism, and negativism and move ahead.

Concern about racism and prejudice surfaced often during the commission's business sessions. Leading one of the morning meditations, Harriet McCabe, a white United Methodist laywoman from Naperville, Ill., gave a moving account of her own lifelong journey with racism. Bishop Jarrett was among those who affirmed her afterward. "Your sharing reminds me of the price everybody pays for racism and sin," he said. "Some pay a price that is greater, but none is exempt."

Bishops from the four denominations have supported an initiative on children in poverty. An offering of more than $1,300 was taken during the public worship service for the initiative. When the commission meets next in Philadelphia, Nov. 28-Dec. 1, a new hymn related to the initiative will be sung by a mass choir composed of members of the four churches.

The commission established an award for honoring the work of pan-Methodist congregations and leaders. The first award will be presented to Payne Chapel AME church in Nashville for its work with at-risk children and youth.

Glenn A. Fleming, the director of the program, told the commissioners that governmental agencies need and want the help of the church. At the same time, he encouraged them to incorporate their ministries separately from the local church in order to keep the government from interfering with church matters. The program related to Payne Chapel is a 10-session early intervention program for teen-agers referred by the juvenile courts.

Fleming said faith-based initiatives supported by President Bush have been a reality for years. "The government (agencies) can't do it by themselves," he said. "They want and need our help."

Drawing on his work with government agencies in Mississippi and Tennessee, Fleming painted a bleak picture. "Locking up our children is not solving the problem," he declared. "Children are raising themselves. The church is going to have to help parents raise these children. You're all they've got.

"Churches must work together to save souls and to help our children," he said. "We're losing them. They have no love in their lives."

Among actions, the commission members voted to:
· Invite U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, an African American and a native of Mississippi, to their next meeting.
· Ask denominational staff executives related to evangelism to meet and explore possible cooperative efforts.
· Affirm a second national conference of black men, planned and supported by all four denominations.
· Ask officials at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to plan a meeting of college presidents from the four denominations.
· Suggest models of cooperation that could be used in target cities and annual conferences. These include use of the United Methodist study guide on repentance (see UMNS story #156), joint worship services, pulpit and choir exchanges, combined youth events and joint vacation Bible schools.

The members also agreed that the Lord's Supper would be observed during the public worship at the next meeting in Philadelphia, partly as a reminder of a racial incident at the city's St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 1700s. Former slave Richard Allen, an itinerant Methodist preacher, left St. George's and started a branch of Methodism that practiced racial equality. Today the denomination is known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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*McAnally is director of United Methodist News Service, the church's official news agency, with offices in Nashville, Washington and New York.

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