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Methodist bishops pledge cooperation—but not merger

By Alice M. Smith*
March 16, 2007 | ATLANTA (UMNS)

Bishop Nathaniel Jarrett

Bishops from six Methodist denominations value fellowship among the churches and cooperating in projects and issues of concern to all, but a union or merger of the churches is definitely not on the horizon.

Bishops attending a once-every-four-years consultation March 11-13 made that clear when, after considerable discussion, they agreed that the name of the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union should simply be “Pan-Methodist Commission.”

Other names considered by the group of 62 bishops were “Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation” and “Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Unity.”

The commission is a representative body of the United Methodist Church and three historically black Methodist churches: African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal. It is the sponsor of the bishops’ consultation, to which all active Methodist bishops are invited.

At the Atlanta meeting, two other Methodist bodies became a part of the consultation for the first time: the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Union Methodist Protestant Church.

Since the joint commission was established by action of the individual General Conferences of the Methodist denominations, the General Conferences will have to approve the name change, said Bishop Nathaniel Jarrett of Chicago, who serves as president of the commission and is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Bishop William Oden

Speaking to the group, Jarrett said the commission had decided “some time ago” that “organic union” was neither feasible nor desired. Yet, the words “cooperation and union” were included in the commission’s name to reflect the belief that “God is calling us to more than cooperation,” he explained. “The problem came when that understanding (fuller cooperation but not merger) was not clearly articulated.”

At the consultation, several bishops in the African-American churches broached the subject of a name change, stating that “union” is misleading and not the commission’s intention. “It’s not what we are working toward,” said Bishop Earl McCloud Jr., Atlanta, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The motion to shorten the name to Pan-Methodist Commission was made by United Methodist Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Conference. “No matter what you say in this particular matter … people will still say you’re talking about union,” should “unity” or “union” remain in the name, he said. His motion passed by a vote of 23-12.

Ways to work together

While specific reasons opposing “union” were not enumerated on the floor, Bishop William Oden of Dallas, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said some obstacles to a merger would be different pension structures, processes for electing bishops, and the fear that the historically black denominations would be “swallowed up” by the larger United Methodist Church.

Yet, there are many ways in which the Methodist bodies can work together, he said. “We have more in common than we do differences. Our Disciplines are very similar. We have the same services of ordination, Communion and baptism.”

The bishops discussed some of cooperative ventures with regard to children and poverty, substance abuse prevention, higher education and men’s ministries.

The United Methodist Church at its 2000 General Conference held a service of repentance and reconciliation, during which it formally apologized for racist acts in the past that caused African-American Methodists to leave and establish their own churches.

In a more recent sign of cooperation and reconciliation, representatives of African- American churches have been serving on the general agencies, commissions and boards of the United Methodist Church.

Bishop Ann Sherer

Lula Howard of Louisville, Ky., a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, described her experience serving on the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “I’m sorry to see my term ending because I’ve learned so much,” she said. “I have had a wonderful experience.”

Currently, United Methodists do not serve on the boards and agencies of the other churches, but one reason is that the African-American churches generally do not have comparable structures, said Oden. “I’ve spoke at the CME and AME Zion General Conferences,” he said. “They are really good about reciprocating invitations and inviting us to their General Conferences.”

Pressing issues

The bishops also discussed cooperative work in the future. On the Gulf Coast, bishops of the Methodist churches will meet to discuss how to help people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and to address insurance, reconstruction and justice issues.


A committee was appointed to draft a statement calling for an end to the war in Iraq, and another group was named to write a letter on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, emphasizing injustices shown to Palestinians. Both letters will be circulated among the bishops for their signatures before being forwarded to U.S. government bodies.

With regard to issues of a living wage, health care and HIV/AIDS, the bishops agreed to write letters of support to national groups already working on these concerns and to link with religious and community leaders addressing them in their home areas.

The bishops also asked the commission staff to provide them with research on AIDS in the United States, particularly with regard to those most affected, such as African-American women. Statistics show AIDS is among the top three causes of death for African-American women ages 35-44.

Ecumenical relations

Bishop James Swanson

One matter that spurred considerable discussion was the formation of a new U.S. ecumenical group, Christian Churches Together, of which the United Methodist Church is a provisional member but which the African-American Methodist churches have not joined. The group has met informally since 2001 and officially launched last month.

The black churches are not members of Christian Churches Together, their bishops said, because they sense a lack of commitment on the organization’s part to inclusiveness, both ethnic- and gender-wise, and to social justice. The bishops also said the group detracts from the National Council of Churches as the primary U.S. ecumenical body.

“Those other groups (in Christian Churches Together) are welcome to come into the National Council of Churches, but we’re too... justice oriented,” said Bishop Thomas Hoyt of Hyattville, Md., of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and former president of the NCC. “Why join a group that just wants to talk?”

In response, United Methodist Bishop Ann Sherer of Nebraska, president of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, said the United Methodist Church shares the concerns of the black churches and for those reasons has agreed to be a provisional member – not a full member.

Still, she said, the United Methodist Church believes it is important “to have some form of conversation with persons of Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and nondenominational (background)” that do not belong to the National Council of Churches but are part of Christian Churches Together.

*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of The United Methodist Church in Georgia.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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