TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS) — When John Wesley brought Methodism to the United States in the 18th century, African-Americans were among his earliest followers.
Soon, however, attempts were made to segregate African-American members most famously in 1787 at St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia — and some, including Richard Allen, a licensed lay preacher, left in disgust. Allen later became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, and other African-American Methodist denominations followed.
United Methodists have an opportunity to heal that rift by approving a full communion agreement during the 2012 General Conference, which meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa.
An affirmative vote would establish a new relationship among the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, African Union Methodist Protestant, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Union American Methodist Episcopal and United Methodist denominations.
"I think it's important and significant because our family in the United States is not united, and there are reasons why this is so," said retired United Methodist Bishop Alfred L. Norris Sr., who leads the Pan-Methodist Commission.
Most of those reasons center around racism, he noted, with the other denominations "started as a response, reaction, revolt against inhumane treatment in the Methodist family."
The six denominations all date back to Wesley and share many similarities, Norris said, "so this is a step forward for us to say to those who left because of that indignation that we are ready to reunite and we are ready to treat them as equal partners."
If approved, The United Methodist Church will be the last of the six denominations to adopt the full communion agreement, said the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., top executive, United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
"I think the relationship among the Pan-Methodist churches exists primarily to repair the breach that opened up over two centuries ago," Sidorak said. "If full communion can represent a repair of that breach, all the better."
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A celebration of Pan-Methodist full communion will be at 4:30 p.m. May 1, a day also set aside for recognition of the denomination's ecumenical partners.
Norris will make a call to celebration and retired Bishop Sharon Z. Rader, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, will lead representatives in an "Ecumenical Litany of Thanksgiving, Remembrance and Re-Commitment. "Ecumenical responses will be made by Bishop John White, Jr. AME church; the Rev. Robert Johnson, AMEZ church, and Bishop Thomas Hoyt, Jr. CME church.
The implementing resolution, submitted by the Commission on Christian Unity, says that "Jesus Christ calls us to unity so that the world may believe" and calls attention to "a common heritage of faith and a commitment to mission."
A formal Act of Repentance by the 2000 General Conference, which apologized "for the injury it (The United Methodist Church) inflicted on its African-American brothers and sisters through its racist position and policies that led to the formation of the historically African-American Methodist churches," is noted as a step toward full communion in the resolution.
Full communion will be achieved by recognizing:
- The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith as it is expressed in the Scriptures, confessed in the church's historic creeds, and attested to in the common doctrinal standards of the six churches
- The authenticity of each other's Baptism and Eucharist, and extending sacramental hospitality to one another's members
- The validity of our respective ministries, including ordination
- The full interchangeability and reciprocity of all ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament, subject to the constitutionally approved invitation for ministry in each other's churches
- The freedom of each church to pursue additional full communion agreements with other church bodies
"Much of what the full communion agreement entails has already been implemented," Sidorak said. But the result, he added, will be "a new range of relationships among the churches of the Pan-Methodist Commission," which will help the commission "live into its full potential."
"It remains morally inexcusable and ecclesiologically unconscionable that the other Pan-Methodist denominations came into being mainly because of the racial barriers erected by the predecessor bodies of our own church," Sidorak wrote in a recent commentary.
But, he lauded the dedication by United Methodists to foster a special relationship with the historic African-American Methodist churches, particularly through the Pan-Methodist Commission.
After the Consultation of Methodist Bishops was formed in 1979, a call was issued for the creation of a Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation, started in 1985. During the 1990s, a second commission, charged with developing a plan of union, was created. In 2000, upon approval by each denomination's top legislative body, the two groups were merged into the Pan-Methodist Commission on Cooperation and Union.
Under the vision of "one body, many members," the commission has stressed cooperation in the areas of evangelism, missions, publications, social concerns and higher education.
Jerry Ruth Williams, a United Methodist lay person from Chesterfield, Mo., has served on the Pan-Methodist Commission for the past four years.
"It really does open up avenues of communication for us," she said, noting it was unlikely that a recent joint letter to the U.S. and Florida attorneys general about the Trayvon Martin shooting would have been written without a forum like the commission.
Plans for actual merger into one church body eventually were dropped. But in a meeting in November 2007, the commission adopted a resolution calling for full communion among its members to affirm their Wesleyan heritage and mutual covenant as churches.
"This resolution would remove all doubts," said African Methodist Episcopal Zion Bishop Nathaniel Jarrett, then the commission chair, at that meeting. "All the implications are things that we already subscribe to, celebrate and are involved in. The resolution codified what we have already been doing in so many instances."
The decision came too late for approval by the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, Rader said. Approval of full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did occur that year.
She believes the agreement will benefit all the Methodist denominations. "When you have full communion, there is the provision that with proper work and credentialing that we could have an exchange of our pastors," she explained. "There is common ministry that we do as Pan-Methodists, particularly an emphasis on children in poverty.
"We hope that as leaders in the churches we will collaborate more," Rader said. "When we are in the same geographic regions together, we would say, 'Before I make this decision, I need to consult with my colleagues.'"
Williams is "very much in favor of full communion" and hopes church agencies will provide study information to help guide the actions of local congregations. "We've talked about it (full communion) and we've said a lot of positive things about it, but we need to make it real," she said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Heather Hahn, a UMNS multimedia reporter based in Nashville, contributed to this report.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]