Bishop Oden, ecumenical leader, dies at 83

Bishop William B. Oden grew up on a farm in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and would eventually travel the world as a representative of The United Methodist Church, pushing for ecumenical and interfaith cooperation.

Oden, who led two annual conferences, served as Council of Bishops president and co-wrote a history of the council, died Dec. 22 at age 83.

His wife of 61 years, Marilyn Brown Oden, said he had been in failing health and took a turn for the worse shortly before his death in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, surrounded by family.

“We were all there, and he died peacefully,” she said.

Oden is perhaps best known for ecumenical and interfaith advocacy, but he also worked within The United Methodist Church to bring opposing groups to the table.

“If I have a mantra in life and ministry, it is that it’s always better to include than to exclude,” Oden told the Dallas Morning News in 2004.

Many around the church have been reflecting on Oden’s many contributions, and on his character.

“Gentle in demeanor, gracious in spirit,” said the Rev. Robert J. Williams, former top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. “Marvelous man.”

Oden was born in McAllen, Texas, but moved with his family to Shawnee as a small boy. The family grew wheat and had a cattle herd and pecan trees.

The Odens were Methodists, and the future bishop preached his first sermon at age 16. But he had to assert his independence in going into ministry. His father wanted him on the farm, and prematurely displayed an “Oden and Son Polled Herefords” sign.

Oden earned his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University, where he met Marilyn in a creative writing class. When it came time for seminary, Oden’s philosophy professor suggested Harvard Divinity School.

Oden admired the theological writings of Paul Tillich, who taught at Harvard. But he didn’t think he could get in there. The professor insisted he apply and promised a recommendation letter.

Harvard not only admitted Oden, but gave him a scholarship, his wife said. She added that he was able to study under Tillich. Later, as a doctoral student at Boston University, Oden would write his dissertation on Tillich and the psychoanalyst Karen Horney.

Oden, who stood 6 feet, 5 inches, returned to Oklahoma and served as a pastor for more than two decades, with appointments in Enid, Norman and Oklahoma City. He also taught at Phillips Theological Seminary and was a delegate to multiple General Conferences and Jurisdictional Conferences.

In 1988, Oden was elected bishop by the South Central Jurisdiction and assigned to the Louisiana Conference.

After eight years, he was chosen to oversee the North Texas Conference. He led a Vision 2020 initiative and a capital campaign that raised more than $12 million for revitalizing urban churches, planting new churches and renovating retreat properties.

“His mind was always out in the future,” said Mary Brooke Casad, who served as the North Texas Conference’s director of mission under Oden.

Odens’ colleagues elected him Council of Bishops president, a post he held in 2000-2001. He believed The United Methodist Church, as a worldwide denomination, needed a full-time presiding bishop, based in Washington, and pushed unsuccessfully for that change.

In 2004, Oden retired as an active bishop, but his pace hardly flagged. He served as bishop-in-residence at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and as ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops.

Oden’s global outreach as an episcopal leader had started in the Louisiana Conference. Led by Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, United Methodists began a missional outreach in 1990 in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in the Ural Mountains. A fledgling congregation, First United Methodist Church, was registered that year.

Oden and his wife were part of a delegation formally opening a United Methodist mission presence in Moscow in 1992.

From 1992-96, the bishop co-chaired — with the Very Rev. Justus Marcus, Anglican Province of Southern Africa — the first phase of an international Methodist-Anglican dialogue on behalf of the World Methodist Council.

“Our divided family is being drawn toward fuller communion by our common heritage and our desire to be faithfully together in worship, mission and witness,” Oden and Marcus wrote in the preface to the report from that dialogue.

An interim eucharistic sharing agreement followed, approved by the Episcopal General Convention in 2006 and the United Methodist General Conference in 2008.

In November 2017, the Council of Bishops moved The United Methodist Church a step closer toward full communion with the Episcopal Church by authorizing the preparation of legislation for the 2020 General Conference.

Peacemaking was part of Oden’s focus. In 2000, while president of the Council of Bishops, Oden led an ecumenical peace and fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and moderated a conversation with officials from Bethlehem and two adjacent villages.

Oden’s term as ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops lasted from 2004-08. He was a United Methodist delegate to the British Methodist Conference during those years and led the United Methodist delegation to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006.

Oden’s commitment to interreligious cooperation and dialogue is reflected in the award that the North Texas Conference has named for him.

“Bishop Oden was a strong and consistent ecumenical leader on behalf of The United Methodist Church and was well-respected by our faith communion partners,” said the Rev. Jean Hawxhurst, an ecumenical staff officer for the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, Council of Bishops.

Marilyn Oden has been the main author of the family, writing many nonfiction books and novels. But Oden himself wrote books for and about the church. He also wrote a memoir.

Late in life, he joined with Williams on a book titled “The Council of Bishops in Historical Perspective.” Oden’s deteriorating eyesight led him to ask Williams for research help.

“I said to him he should take sole authorship,” Williams said. “He was too kind a person not to give me co-authorship.”

Casad noted that Oden always made time for his family and cherished their summer vacations in Colorado but was otherwise a “24/7 bishop.”

When he retired as leader of the North Texas Conference, one pastor offered this comment about his successor.

“Whoever it is, they’re not going to fill his shoes,” the pastor told the Dallas Morning News. “They’re going to have to bring their own. His shoes are too big.”

Besides his wife, Oden is survived by their four children (Danna Lee, Dirk, Valerie and Bryant) and four grandchildren.

Memorial services will be at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 1:30 p.m., and at Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, on March 9, at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family invites contributions to the Bishop William B. Oden Scholarship at Perkins School of Theology.

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer and Bloom is assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests. 

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