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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 Tanton

LOS 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.

That's the 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.

"I don't think there's a choice in the matter," he said. " … God would frown upon any church that's self-satisfied with its own little denominational niche."

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 agencies.

"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.

Bishop 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.

The Rev. 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.

During 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.

The 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.

In 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 us."

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.

Besides building 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 … in a way that was absolutely stunning to me."

"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 same time.

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.

Robbins 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 too quickly."

*Tanton is United Methodist News Service's managing editor.

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