Churches must reach beyond niches, agency executive says
9/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph and audio clips are available with this report
By Tim TantonLOS
ANGELES (UMNS) - Many hands have built the United Methodist Church's
interfaith bridges, but one person's imprint in particular appears on
nearly every beam erected during the past two decades.
imprint of the Rev. Bruce Robbins, the top staff executive at the
United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious
Concerns. During 17 years at the agency - 13 as its top executive - he
has helped the church deal with difficult internal issues, build
stronger ties with other denominations and come to a deeper
understanding of non-Christian traditions.
Forging ecumenical relationships is important not only at the denomination level but also for local churches, Robbins believes.
don't think there's a choice in the matter," he said. " â€¦ God would
frown upon any church that's self-satisfied with its own little
Robbins, 52, will leave the New York-based
commission at the end of this year, in keeping with the denomination's
12-year term limit for general secretaries (he received a one-year
extension in 2002). A roomful of leaders from around the denomination
celebrated his career Sept. 7 during a meeting of the General Council on
Ministries, which coordinates the work of the church's program
"Bruce is a sermon that we can see," said the Rev.
Chester Jones, top executive of the Commission on Religion and Race.
Robbins is a leader who gets things done, Jones said, noting among other
accomplishments the Act of Repentance service at the 2000 General
Conference, where the denomination apologized for racism in the church.
William Boyd Grove, a former president of the commission, praised
Robbins as a "powerful and eloquent advocate for the unity of the
church." In a letter read aloud at the celebration, Grove said members
of other faith communities respect Robbins for his work.
Patricia Ferris, a former commission member from Santa Monica, Calif.,
said Robbins provided leadership on issues "that strained our own
unity," helping nurture dialogue on divisions within the denomination.
Robbins' tenure, the commission arranged dialogues in the church around
issues of theological diversity, racism and homosexuality, as well as
bilateral talks with other denominations, including the Roman Catholic
and Episcopal churches. Robbins predicts that within eight years, United
Methodists and Episcopalians - who share the same Anglican roots - will
have "fully interchangeable" ministries. That means, for example, that
clergy members of one church could celebrate communion in the other.
commission also works closely with the U.S. National Council of
Churches, the World Council of Churches and the World Methodist Council.
It is involved in an ongoing consultation with eight other
denominations - including the three historically African-American
Methodist churches - on building closer ties.
Thanks to Robbins,
Ferris said, a host of people - including youth and young adults - have
been formed in the work of Christian unity and ecumenism, "and that is
truly a lasting gift."
"The work of the commission has moved from the margin to the center of what our denomination is about," she said.
an interview after the celebration, Robbins reflected on that change,
noting that the church has shifted from viewing ecumenical work as
something institutional to seeing it as "the search for unity amongst
Areas that need greater attention include exploring the
global nature of the church, with its "huge" ecumenical implications,
and building sensitivity to the presence of other Methodist traditions
in different parts of the world, Robbins said.
relations with people of other Christian traditions, including
Pentecostals and the Russian Orthodox, Robbins has focused on interfaith
relationships. Early in his career at the commission, he specialized in
Christian-Jewish relations, and more recently he has helped United
Methodists better understand Islam.
Robbins' ecumenical fire was
lit in 1975, when he worked as a steward at the World Council of
Churches assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. There, he said, he "caught a
glimpse of the body of Christ â€¦ in a way that was absolutely stunning
"It set my journey," he said. He later spent six months
with Roman Catholic missionaries in Calcutta, India, and upon returning
to the United States began parish ministry and ecumenical work at the
While serving as associate pastor at Trinity United
Methodist Church in Montpelier, Vt., from 1977 to 1980, he developed a
network of workshops to reach people of other faiths, and became a
trainer in nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1980, he served as a
chaplain to the athletes at the Winter Olympics, living in the Olympic
Village in Lake Placid, N.Y. At the same time, he led South Royalton
(Vt.) Federated Church.
A native of Latham, N.Y., Robbins has
degrees from Oberlin (Ohio) College, Union Theological Seminary in New
York, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He was ordained a
deacon in the Troy Annual (regional) Conference in 1974 and became an
elder in 1981.
His wife, Carol Braswell Robbins, is on staff at Cornell University. The couple has two children.
begins a new ministry in March as senior minister of Hennepin Avenue
United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. He also plans on remaining
involved in ecumenical work, he said.
The commission, meanwhile,
is searching for a new top executive. Asked what he would tell his
successor, Robbins said: "It's a thrilling opportunity. It goes by all
*Tanton is United Methodist News Service's managing editor.
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