United Methodists Address Vital Ecumenical Concerns

The United Methodist Church will not take any further steps in joining what may become the largest ecumenical body in the United States, a commission on Christian unity decided last week.

Members of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interrelations Dialogue addressed several key issues during their Sept. 22-25 annual meeting in Seattle, including the hotly-debated topic of joining the new Christian Churches Together movement and extending conversations with the Roman Catholic and Muslim communities.

The UMC, the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination with over 8 million members, has opted for provisional membership within the CCT – quite possibly the largest effort to unite the broken body of the American Church. This new ecumenical venture, which is still in its growing process, hopes to bring Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholic, Ethnic, and Historic Mainline churches together around one table.

The CCT was slated for launch by the end of this year, but its birth was postponed until next year - tentatively - so more churches can join the effort. The main concern for the CCT was the absence of historically black churches among its membership. This same concern was the main reason why the Methodist Commission decided not to move forward in its involvement with the CCT.

The UMC currently has “provisional membership” in the fledgling group. Meanwhile, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church decided not to join at this point. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church is requesting “observer status.” All four of these denominations are part of the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union.

Because of the inconsistencies in membership levels, the Commission on Christian Unity passed a resolution recommending that the Pan-Methodist members “act together in respect to membership in the 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,” according to the United Methodist News Service.

Bishop Thomas Hoyt, head of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Louisiana and Mississippi, said he believes the CCT will be good for a lot of people, “but for the black church, there is still a sense of suspicion,” according to the United Methodist News Service. Hoyt, who also serves as president of the National Council of Church, said black Methodist denominations have joined many ecumenical organizations – such as the NCC – but does not understand the need to start another group to “unite with organizations that won’t join with us (in the NCC).”

AME Bishop E. Earl MCloud of Atlanta, chair of the Pan-Methodist commission, echoed the concerns about having two wide-ranging ecumenical bodies in one nation.

"I am clear that Christian Churches Together is going to weaken the National Council of Churches," he said, according to UMNS. "I'm clear that another ecumenical body is going to over flood an already flooded ecumenical landscape."

He went further to refer to the CCT as "a bunch of white men" with a conservative agenda.

However, the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the chief executive of the Reformed Church in America and chair of the Christian Churches Together steering committee, disagreed, saying the CCT addresses broader concerns for a broader range of believers than the NCC.

“[Established ecumenical groups] are unable to be a place that is inclusive of the wider Christian community,” Granberg-Michaelson said, according to UMNS. “Millions of Christians feel marginalized by that.”

The two largest established ecumenical bodies are the NCC and the National Association of Evangelicals. Membership within these two bodies is mutually exclusive, and denominations may not join both.

In past interviews, Granberg-Michaelson had explained that the CCT is not meant as a replacement for the NCC, which will remain much more politically active than its broader counterpart.

This political activism within the NCC was also a point of concern addressed at the Seattle meeting. Commission members approved the sending of a letter to NCC President Bishop Hoyt to express sadness over the recent withdrawal of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America from the NCC.

"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.

The letter also noted that the “partisan political tone” of the NCC was one of the main reasons for the Orthodox Church’s withdrawal, and said “we hope that this concern will be addressed in a formal way within the council’s accountability structures.”

Ultimately, the UMC decided to be open to new ecumenical organizations, like the CCT, which may provide opportunities for Methodists to dialogue with new groups. At the same time, however, Oden explained that United Methodists remain committed to the NCC and Pan-Methodism.

"We have no other choice because we're family," Oden said.

Meanwhile, in regards to ecumenical growth within the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligous Concerns, said the denomination must look outside of the United States and become a truly global church.

"The United Methodist Church is a communion that is centered, both economically and politically, in the United States," Pickens said, according to UMNS. "This does not reflect the explosive church growth and radical change happening in many of the central conferences (outside the United States)."

He introduced a draft plan for a “Forum on the Global Nature of the Church,” which has a goal of creating “a setting where representatives from Africa, Europe, the Philippines, the United States and Latin America can tell their stories.”

The plan will be considered by the commission’s long rang/strategic planning committee, according to the denomination's news service.

The United Methodists also addressed ecumenical concerns relating to Roman Catholic and Muslim communities.

Bishop Scott Jones of Wichita, Kan., gave the commission members a brief history of the dialogues between the United Methodist and Roman Catholic Church. According to the report, the dialogues began in 1967 and have since opened opportunities to work together, to clarify conceptions of other faiths, and to promote theological self-understanding.

He said new dialogue teams, which are changed every five years, will be named soon.

The Commission members also agreed for a formal United Methodist-Muslim Dialogue, taking into consideration any conversations between the two groups that may already exist in local communities.