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United Methodist ecumenical leader dies


1:00 P.M. EST Oct.11, 2010

The Rev. Robert W. Huston, shown in this April 2005 file photograph, was the  founding chief executive of The United Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. He died Oct. 6 at the age of 90.  A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
The Rev. Robert W. Huston, shown in this April 2005 file photograph, was the founding chief executive of The United Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. He died Oct. 6 at the age of 90. A UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.
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The church leader who helped shape the ecumenical vision of The United Methodist Church has died at the age of 90.

The Rev. Robert W. Huston was being remembered as a devout Christian with a fierce passion for the unity of the church and a humble man who championed the gifts of women and young adults.

“There was no one in the whole world more knowledgeable about the ecumenical and interreligious scene than Rob Huston,” declared retired United Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell.

An official Protestant Observer at the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council in 1965, he was instrumental in official dialogues with Roman Catholics and Lutherans and called ecumenism a “tough job” but not a lost cause “because it is not ours to lose — it is God’s.”

Huston, who had suffered a stroke in January, died Oct. 6 at the Peconic Landing retirement community in Greenport, Long Island, N.Y. A memorial service is planned there on Nov. 6.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, top executive of the National Council of Churches and a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, served on the commission during Huston’s tenure and remembered him as a bridge-builder.

“It was notable that Rob Huston — one of the great United Methodist ecumenical pioneers —made everyone around the table feel like a member of the family," Kinnamon said. “Few leaders had a greater understanding of the theological distinctions of the many groups with whom he worked.”

New ecumenical position

His ecumenical career began in 1965, when he was named the first staff officer for the Methodist Church’s newly-created Commission on Ecumenical Affairs. That commission became a division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 1972.

In 1980, General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, elevated the division to an independent agency, the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, with Huston as its chief executive.

Tuell, who was president of the new agency from 1980 to ’84, remembered Huston as an able leader who worked well with the Council of Bishops in its role as the denomination’s official representative in ecumenical and interfaith circles. “He was a great bureaucrat in the best sense of that word,” he said.

The bishop also admired how Huston’s faith commitment was evident in his work. “He showed his Christian character and nature in everything he did,” he added.

Tuell’s connection to Huston extends back to Tacoma, Wash., where Huston was born on Sept. 9, 1920. They both graduated from Stadium High School — Huston two years ahead of him in 1939 — and attended “rival” Methodist congregations that came together at the local Epworth League Institute.

During World War II, Huston was a U.S. Navy Petty Officer, first class, serving for two years on aircraft carrier USS Wake Island. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound, where he has endowed an annual scholarship, in 1949 and then traveled east.

At Boston University, he was awarded a theology degree in 1953 and a doctorate in theology in social ethics in 1964. He also had a 1953-54 fellowship at the Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies in Bossey-Celigny, Switzerland. Houston became an elder in what was then the Southern New England Annual (regional) Conference in 1952 and served Massachusetts congregations from 1950-65.

Advocate for young adults

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, who worked with Huston for four years and then succeeded him as the top executive of the Commission on Christian Unity, pointed to his “expertise and commitment” in areas such as Christian-Jewish relations, the worldwide movement of Christian unity and the increased involvement of women and young people in that movement.

Robbins was one of the young people who benefited from his tutelage and passion for ecumenism. “That passion changed me and carried me forward for many years,” he said.

Two younger female colleagues attested to Huston’s advocacy for women and young adults.

“Rob was, first and foremost, a passionate, articulate and committed ecumenist,” said Clare Chapman, a former commission staff member who is now the chief operating officer of the National Council of Churches.

“But he was also a strong advocate for bringing women into positions of leadership within the church as well as encouraging the leadership of young adults. This was not only because of his commitment to inclusivity but also because he knew the future of the ecumenical movement depended on it.”

Jan Love, a laywoman and the first woman to serve as dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, was one of the young adults nurtured by Huston into leadership in the World Council of Churches.

“Rob was tireless, often selfless, full of integrity, deeply dedicated, good humored, and the best kind of pastor for me, a young woman trying to find her way in a world of renowned Christian world leaders and very colorful personalities,” Love said. “He was among my most valuable mentors.”

Other passions

Ecumenism was not his only passion. With his well-trained bass voice, Huston performed in quartets and men’s choruses and as a vocal soloist. He also was an accomplished in woodworking and carpentry.

Huston married Frances Terry Huston in 1944, while on leave from the U.S. Navy duty during World War II. She died in May 2009. He is survived by his daughter, Alyce Huston Hemstreet of East Lyme, Conn.; son-in-law, Edward Hemstreet; two grandchildren, Lesley Ann Hemstreet and Robert Hemstreet; and one great-granddaughter, Ivette Lee Hemstreet.

His daughter remembered him as a dedicated father and grandfather. One year, during a family vacation at the Jersey Shore, she had red, white and blue polo shirts made for everyone. “At first, when Dad saw them, I think he was horrified,” she said. But he seemed to like the public display of family unity. “Pretty soon, we couldn’t get Dad out of his (shirt).”

When Huston officiated at the wedding of his grandson and namesake to Rosemary Bianculli two years ago, he spent a year planning the service so it would be reflective of the Christian faith but also respectful of other faiths, Alyce Hemstreet said.

In April 2005, the Commission on Christian Unity dedicated the conference room of its newly-renovated offices at the Interchurch Center in New York to Huston. To the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., the commission’s current top executive, Huston “articulated a vision of the vocation to which every Christian is called, namely prayer and work for the unity of Christ’s Church.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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