Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Methodists and Segregation -- two new books

Two new books about exactly the same topic fell into my hands without any effort on my part, so I thought I ought to pay attention. One of the books was given to me by its author who is a member of my congregation. The other was given to me because it was nominated for an award and a member of the organization making the award thought it would interest me.

Both books are about the the long and difficult battle to do away with the Central Jurisdiction in order to integrate the Methodist Church, at least at the regional and national levels. The Central Jurisdiction had been established in 1939 when northern and southern Methodism --split in 1844 over slavery-- were reunited. It was an organizational and structural device designed to keep the Methodist Church segregated, so that no white pastor would be under the authority of an African-American bishop and so that no white church would be assigned an African-American pastor. Once established, the Central Jurisdiction was almost impossible to do away with, even when the larger society was rapidly moving beyond Jim Crow. Each book is, in its own way, a fascinating read.

Peter C. Murray, author of Methodists and the Crucible of Race 1930-1975, is a professor at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC. He writes as an objective historian, although his commitment to an integrated society and church is obvious. His interest in this topic comes, at least in part, from growing up in a Methodist parsonage in a town where the Methodist churches were segregated. "Two blocks from my father's church was another Methodist church," he writes. "It belonged to the same denomination, but it was in a different annual conference and had a different bishop. ... In spite of being in the same denomination, the two churches had no direct contact with one other. It was as though they were worshipping different gods." (p. ix)

W. Astor "Bill" Kirk, author of Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity: Reform Movements That Ended Racial Segregation, writes as an activist and passionate participant in the struggle to end segregation within his beloved denomination. Bill served as secretary and then chair of the Central Jurisdiction's Committee of Five, the group that finally persuaded the denomination to reform its segregationist structure. His book is particularly powerful when he gives us a glimpse of the fierce resistance to integration within the denomination and the feelings of African-Americans like himself who experienced the sting of the church's rejection. One of the interesting byproducts of reading Bill Kirk's book is observing whom he and other African-Americans trusted, even when they disagreed, and how others totally lost the trust of African-American leaders.

The books complement each other and are best read one after another. Both of these books introduce us to a generation of largely unsung Methodist heroes --African-American and white-- who devoted themselves to the vision of an integrated church and who paid a price for their commitment and leadership. Of course, soberingly, the books also introduce us to a generation of Methodists who fought as hard as they could, sometime manipulatively, to keep Methodism segregated. These books make me wonder what historians will say about us 30 and 50 years from now.

A few lessons we might learn:

1. Change takes a long time within our denomination, and it takes persistence and diligence to make it happen. I wonder if many of us today are as loyal and committed to our denominational tradition as Bill Kirk and his contemporaries were? I wonder if we love our church as much? I wonder if we are as willing to pray, to organize, to negotiate, to present resolutions that get defeated, then wait four years to present other resolutions, and to argue cases before the Judicial Council? The process of desegregating the Methodist Church took 30 years, and would have taken longer had not Evangelical United Brethren Church leaders made ending the Central Jurisdiction a condition of the Methodist-EUB merger. African-American Methodists must have loved the Methodist Church profoundly to sacrifice this greatly and to suffer such rebuke in order to help heal us from the awful disease of racism.

2. We are not necessarily always a prophetic church. On the issue of integration, our denomination lagged pretty far behind the larger society. The primary reason for this was a commitment on the part of General Conference to voluntarism. The Methodist Church did not want to force anybody to integrate who did not want to. (Bill Kirk's oft stated observation was that segregation into the Central Jurisdiction was not voluntary, so the principle of voluntarism obviously cut just one way.) Peter Murray argues, interestingly enough, that southern Methodists, albeit slower to change than the north, were in some cases more prophetic and courageous than the northerners, even though southern successes were less recognized and celebrated. (p. 234) Murray also wonders whether the Methodism's sluggishness cost us the baby boomers. This generation (my generation) began leaving the denomination during the 1960s, he says. Previously Methodist student and youth groups were thriving. He wonders whether the church's slowness to integrate may have been one of the reasons baby boomers lost interest in the denomination in the 60s. (p. 238)

3. It seems to me from reading these books that the Methodist bishops took a more active leadership role in moving the church toward integration than they seem to take on any issue today. They did not just teach or opine, they made executive decisions. For example, at a critical point of the negotiations to end the Central Jurisdiction, they took the initiative to develop a plan for transition, including developing a formula to facilitate the merger of Central Jurisdiction conferences into the Southwest Jurisdiction. (Murray, p. 174-5) At one point the bishops called for a delay in Judicial Council deliberations. (Kirk, p. 158) These kinds of actions seem much more assertive than the bishops' actions lately. And it was interesting to read about the role of the Judicial Council in this process. For those who wonder about the role the Judicial Council plays these days, it will interesting for you to read Bill Kirk's description of his efforts to plead for movement toward integration before the council in 1965. (See Chapter 10)

4. It is easy to forget that issues are personal, not just a matter of politics or theological interpretation. In Pittsburgh in 1939 when General Conference approved the merger between the northern and southern churches, segregating African-American Methodists into the Central Jurisdiction as a compromise in order to achieve reunification, the delegates rose and cheerfully sang "We're Marching to Zion." Apparently they did not notice or else did not care that African-American delegates remain seated in their chairs, many of them weeping openly. (Murray, p. 41) And, then, there is a profound moment in Bill Kirk's account during which he describes the anger he felt when a denominational committee rudely challenged efforts to move the cause forward. "It has been forty years since I received that note ..." he writes. "But I still have vivid recollections of my emotional reaction ... Suddenly I became angry -- very, very angry!" (p. 115) We discuss issues regarding the humanity of God's children --brothers and sisters-- as though it were an impersonal discussion, but real flesh-and-blood human beings are wounded by our thoughts and actions.

Peter Murray has written an excellent history. His book is the best way to get an overview of this troubled era of Methodist history. Bill Kirk profoundly enriches the history by sharing his personal experience of being a pioneer for justice in the church, and giving us a first-hand look at the day-by-day strategy of the change agents. I consider it an act of providence that both books fell into my lap at the same time. They are well worth our study and deliberation. After all, as the old saw goes, those of us who forget history are doomed to repeat it.


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