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United Methodist agency looks inside, outside on unity issues

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The Rev. Larry Pickens

Sept. 27, 2005

By Linda Bloom*

SEATTLE (UMNS) — United Methodists need to move beyond their historical isolation and divisions to become a truly global church.

“The United Methodist Church is a communion that is centered, both economically and politically, in the United States,” said the Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “This does not reflect the explosive church growth and radical change happening in many of the central conferences (outside the United States).”

Pickens presented a draft plan for a “Forum on the Global Nature of the Church” during the commission’s Sept. 22-25 annual meeting in Seattle. “The goal of the forum is to create a setting where representatives from Africa, Europe, the Philippines, the United States and Latin America can tell their stories,” according to the plan.

The forum would include a series of regional consultations and also cover issues such as poverty, war and conflict, HIV/AIDS and human rights. The plan will be considered by the commission’s long range/strategic planning committee.

The commission is starting its own global exploration by setting its spring meeting next April in Geneva, where it will meet with representatives of the European church and visit ecumenical agencies, such as the World Council of Churches. Smaller delegations also will travel to the Vatican that month and to Cuba in October 2006.

Attending to ecumenical concerns, commission members approved the sending of a letter to Bishop Thomas Hoyt, president of the National Council of Churches, to express sadness over the fact that the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America had recently withdrawn its membership from that group. A copy of the letter also was sent to the archdiocese.

The council did not make an adequate effort to address the archdiocese’s concerns, either before or after the withdrawal, according to the letter.

“We believe the impact of this loss to the council will become apparent over the coming months and years, and we implore the council leadership to take immediate steps to understand this action and reach out to leadership within the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese,” the letter said.

While affirming the NCC’s witness on social justice, the commission’s letter also expressed concern about the “partisan political tone” of a June fund-raising letter signed by the Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist who serves as the NCC’s chief executive. The fund-raising letter is believed to have been a factor in the archdiocese’s decision to withdraw its membership.

“We hope that this concern will be addressed in a formal way within the council’s accountability structures, and that future letters of this kind will be more temperate in tone, avoid partisan politics and give witness to social justice concerns in a manner that affirms the (NCC’s) primary task of working for the unity of the church,” the commission’s letter said.

Bishop Scott Jones of Wichita, Kan., gave commission members a brief history of the bilateral dialogues between the World Methodist Council and Roman Catholic Church.

An outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council, the dialogues began in 1967 and operate in five-year cycles. “There is a network of people who have given their lives to this kind of work,” he said.

Jones believes dialogue between two different communions not only helps them find new ways to work together but also clarifies conceptions of the other faith and promotes theological self-understanding. By being patient and taking a long-term view, opportunities for progress can be found, he said.

He lamented that there has been little communication between the teams conducting the World Methodist Council-Roman Catholic dialogues and the United Methodist-U.S. Roman Catholic dialogues sponsored by the Commission on Christian Unity.

The bishop noted that new dialogue teams are being named soon, and he suggested that one participant be a member of both the World Methodist Council and Commission on Christian Unity teams. He also proposed that officers of the two dialogue groups meet together.

Jones addressed the issue of unity within the denomination by describing the unity task force formed by the United Methodist Council of Bishops in response to tensions during the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, and the unity resolution adopted there.

“The gift and purpose and ministry of bishops is, in part, to teach,” he said. The task force is considering a series of teaching events over the next three years “to talk about unity in ways that will pull us together,” he said.

“If unity is going to be of value, we need to talk about it,” the bishop said. “We need to do Bible studies about it.”

In other business, commission members:

  • Recommended that member denominations of the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union “act together in respect to membership in Christian Churches Together and that the United Methodist Church take no further steps toward full membership in the CCT in the absence of substantial concurrence by the other denominations in the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union.” (See related story, UMNS #539.)
  • Engaged in discussion and training on “Mutual Recognition and Mutual Reconciliation of Ministries,” a document prepared by the ministry task force of Churches Uniting in Christ.
  • Learned about ecumenical work in the Greater Seattle area from a panel of local representatives.
  • Agreed to plan for a formal United Methodist-Muslim dialogue, taking into consideration any dialogues that already might be occurring in local communities.

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

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

Audio Interview with the Rev. Larry Pickens

“We have to find venues for conversations across borders.”

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