News Archives

Archives commission chooses two for honors


By Joretta Purdue*

SALEM, Ore. (UMNS) - The United Methodist Church's historical agency has named a woman to receive its annual award next year and a bishop to receive a special award - both for only the second time in the organization's history.

The Commission on Archives and History, meeting Sept. 11-13, decided to give the 2003 Distinguished Service Award to Jean Miller Schmidt and to give special recognition to Bishop James Thomas for his work in preserving the history of the denomination's Central Jurisdiction.

At 45, Thomas became the Methodist Church's youngest bishop when he was elected in 1964 by the Central Jurisdiction, the non-geographic jurisdiction of U.S. Methodist churches that were predominantly African American. He later presided over the Committee of Five that formulated the plan to merge the Central Jurisdiction's annual conferences into those of the geographic jurisdictions. He later compiled Methodism's Racial Dilemma: The Story of the Central Jurisdiction. Thomas retired in 1988.

Thomas is the second bishop to receive recognition for his work in preserving the denomination's history. The late Bishop William R. Cannon was the first.

Schmidt is professor of church history at Iliff School of Theology. She is known for her work in women's history within Methodism, particularly her book titled, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism 1760 to 1939.

Schmidt is the second woman to receive the commission's annual Distinguished Service Award. The first was in 1997, when Rosemary Skinner Keller, a United Methodist deacon and former professor of religion and American culture at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was recognized for her work with the history of women in the church.

The commission, which did not meet in 2001 because of the events of Sept. 11, heard presentations by both the Rev. Russell E. Richey, winner of the 2001 Distinguished Service Award, and the Rev. Joe Hale, the recipient of the same award for 2002.

Also honored was the Rev. Kenneth E. Rowe, who retired from the position of librarian of American Methodism in July. Rowe was a youth member and then a regular member of the commission before he began teaching at Drew University in 1971. He was named Drew Professor of the Year in 1990. "For the last 32 years, I've had a lot of fun," he said. Rowe is continuing as interim librarian until the end of the year.

In talking about "Methodism, the Big Picture, and Challenges We Face Today," Hale emphasized Methodism's place in the historical context of the whole church, including the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions as well as Methodism's own history.

"Formidable contemporary challenges confront us all, and we've got to confront them together," asserted Hale, the chief staff executive of the World Methodist Council for 25 years before leaving in 2001. "The contemporary challenge is not to pit Christianity against Islam."

Hale declared that how Christian history unfolds over the next 50 years may depend on how Methodists view their faith. "Is it for the world and all people, or basically for the church and the home?"

"Is the God we serve part of the real world?" Hale asked. If so, he concluded, then Christians and their politics cannot ignore the words of St. Paul when he said that vengeance is God's alone. "The question (for each of us) is 'What can I do? Yes, what can I do in my time to help turn the course of history toward God's kingdom and God's righteousness?"

Richey, dean and professor of church history at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, noted a change in recent years in how United Methodist history is viewed. For a long time, secular and church historians regarded denominational history as a "pariah" field of endeavor, and even those in the church largely overlooked the 1984 bicentennial of American Methodism, he said.

"In the last decade, there has been a rather remarkable outpouring of writing about Methodist history," he said. "It's no longer a pariah field."

He said he believes the time is appropriate for historians to work out of theological suppositions - not just scientific ones.

"We don't look at church history and ask, 'what does this mean theologically?'" Richey complained. People talk about doctrine needing practical expression, but Richey wants to reverse this direction. He said he wants someone to look at what Wesley did with Scripture, not just what he said about it. "Recognize history as a theological endeavor," he said.

He used American Methodism's early evangelist and bishop as an example. "What strikes me is (Francis) Asbury's engagement with the landscape," Richey said. Methodists, he said, "thought their mission was to the entire continent, the whole world."

Historic Methodists lived out their theology, he said. He urged his listeners to read the movement's history to see the sense of Providence that runs through the accounts of Methodists' lives and even their church meetings. From the minutes of quarterly meetings to accounts of fights at camp meetings, the church's history offers enlightenment to the willing reader, he said.

At other times during the meeting, commission members shared reports from their areas. Ulrike Schuler of Wuppertal, Germany, said church people in the Eastern European countries are trying to learn English, after spending the Cold War decades doing everything in Russian. That is a challenge, she said. In addition, the people had been taught not to write things down during the communist era, so now they are trying to build records based on oral histories, she said.

Schuler credited a commission workshop held in Germany last year with stimulating the creation of a historical commission in Poland, the establishment of archives there and publication of historical articles. The same workshop led to the installation of a fire alarm and dehumidifier for Germany's central archives, housed at the theological seminary in Reutlingen.

Bishop Solito Kuramin Toquero of Manila, Philippines, spoke of the work in his country, noting that a commemorative book is being printed on the denomination's centennial there.

The missionaries in Mindanao have been withdrawn because they were targeted for kidnapping, he said. Church members in that area have also had to flee. "We are urging our government to go into dialogue with these groups," he said of the Muslim separatists and communist rebels.

Toquero, who is vice president of the commission, presided at the meeting for Bishop J. Lawrence McClesky, commission president, who was absent because of a death in the family.

The commission will meet Aug. 12-14 in Madison, N.J., in conjunction with the Fifth Historical Convocation Aug. 14-17.

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*Purdue is news director of United Methodist News Service's Washington office.

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