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United Methodists organize for new ecumenical efforts

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson blesses the Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr. as he is installed as the new staff ecumenical officer for The United Methodist Church.
UMNS photos by Dave Dapcevich.

By Linda Bloom*
Sept. 23, 2008 | DAYTON, Ohio (UMNS)

The United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns is not quite re-inventing itself.

The Golden Rule of ecumenism is to "try to understand others even as you would be understood by them," says the
Rev. Michael Kinnamon.

But with new leadership at its helm, 26 new members on its 43-person board and an expanded agenda of both a global and interfaith nature, the church's ecumenical agency is moving forward in a new way.

"We realize it is a season of fresh beginnings," said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Los Angeles area, the new commission president.

During its Sept. 17-21 organizational meeting at United Theological Seminary in suburban Dayton, the commission officially elected its new chief executive, the Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr., and heard from the new ecumenical officer of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Sharon Rader.

Swenson noted that the meeting’s theme—"Making All Things New" from John 1:5—is fitting for the new leadership, new members and the new quadrennium. She said she hopes the commission can focus on teambuilding and promoting unity with wholeness, both within the denomination and on the outside, with Methodist, ecumenical and interfaith partners.

Sidorak, the long-time executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut, is a veteran teambuilder of ecumenical partnerships, particularly at the state level. He unofficially started his new position on July 1.

His Sept. 21 installation service at Concord United Methodist Church drew two nearby state leaders, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a United Church of Christ clergywoman and head of the Kentucky Council of Churches, and the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, a Presbyterian who is executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches.

One of the new commission members is the Rev. Gary Harke of the Moravian Church, who leads the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. "It’s rare that a commission invites people from outside its membership into its internal structure," he told United Methodist News Service.

A challenge at the state ecumenical level "is keeping the whole of the vision and not collapsing it into things that are more readily achievable," said Harke, who also has experience with the National Council of Churches.

Kinnamon addresses group

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, a Disciples of Christ minister who leads the National Council of Churches and is a longtime friend of Sidorak’s, delivered the sermon for his installation.

Kinnamon—himself a member of the Commission on Christian Unity from 1988-92—also addressed the group about ecumenical relationships. He noted that major gifts of the Methodist heritage to the ecumenical movement include a relationship between personal and social holiness and a sense of the church as a connected community.

“Simply having organized unity is not a guarantee of having authentic spiritual unity.”
–Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingos
One of the complaints about The United Methodist Church, however, he added, is that its size sometimes makes the denomination too "self-sufficient." He pointed out that "others have gifts to give that you need to receive."

While the modern ecumenical movement "begins with the conviction that we are one," unity does not mean agreement, he cautioned. Rather, church bodies seek agreement as a consequence of being one.

Kinnamon said the Golden Rule of ecumenism is to "try to understand others even as you would be understood by them."

A passion for justice must "go hand-in-hand" with reconciliation and witness for Christ. "This is not an easy way to be Christian," he said. "It is a faithful way to be Christian."

The significance of councils of churches—from local to international levels—comes through the relationships among the members, not from the structure itself. At the worst, he pointed out, a council of churches can "institutionalize our differences" instead of promoting deeper unity.

Through solidarity

Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingos of Angola in Africa also spoke to his fellow commission members about reconciling differences. "To reach peace, the path is through solidarity … that does not exclude anyone," he said.

The danger is acting more like a social club or advocacy group. "Simply having organized unity is not a guarantee of having authentic spiritual unity," Domingos said. Unity is not built by members of the church but by the Lord "who reigns over all of us, working through us and in all of us."

Returning commission members acknowledged the pain and turbulence of the commission’s December 2007 meeting, when a close vote by members resulted in the dismissal of the Rev. Larry Pickens, the group’s previous chief executive and first African-American leader.

Responding to concerns about racism, the commission has worked to repair relations with its partners from the historically black Methodist churches on the Pan-Methodist Commission. Three representatives from those churches are part of the new commission. The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race also prepared a confidential report for the commission, and the Rev. Barbara Issacs, a Religion and Race executive, provided training during the meeting.

Sidorak said he believes momentum is growing for the renewal of the commission. "I’m exceedingly grateful for the spirit and energy of all the people on this board," he said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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

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Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns

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