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May 5, 2000         GC-019

United Methodists repent for racism

CLEVELAND (UMNS) -- In a May 4 service that included the symbolic wearing of sackcloth and ashes, United Methodists confessed to the sin of racism within the denomination.

The act of repentance, together with a call for reconciliation, is an attempt to recapture the spirit of Methodism lost when some African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries felt compelled to leave the church’s predecessor bodies and form their own congregations.

Representatives of the three historically black Methodist denominations were present when a silver triangular plumb-line, as symbolized in the Book of Amos, was lowered before General Conference delegates and other participants “as a constant reminder that we must pass God’s test for righteousness.”

Bishop William Boyd Grove compared the lingering racism to “a malignancy in the bone marrow of the church” and called for an official apology.

“It’s high time to say we’re sorry, and only the General Conference can do it,” he said. “Only the General Conference speaks for the church.”

In words and dramatic imagery, the Rev. Anthony Alexander, a Central Pennsylvania delegate, and the Rev. William B. McClain, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, told the stories of the discriminatory acts that led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.

But racism remained for African Americans who stayed. When the Methodist Episcopal Church North, Methodist Episcopal Church South and Methodist Protestant Church united in 1939, a separate jurisdiction – the Central Jurisdiction – was created for black members. Retired Bishop James S. Thomas, who remembered the sorrow of that period, noted that God has now given the church the opportunity “to climb a higher mountain than we’ve ever climbed before.”

To drive home a point about racism today, Bishop Woodie White “performed a miracle” and pronounced that all white people in the audience had become persons of color. He predicted that some of them might lose pastoral appointments or church leadership positions as a result of the change in their skin tone.

Responding to the call for confession, participants received a strip of sackcloth to pin onto their clothes and a rubbing of ashes on the wrist as signs of penance.

Bishop McKinley Young of the African Methodist Episcopal Church responded that he couldn’t speak for his grandparents but added, “I wish they could hear your confession tonight. I believe that there is a balcony in heaven, and that there are clouds of witnesses who bend their ears to hear.”

Bishop Clarence Carr, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, said he hoped United Methodists would move from the symbolism of the service to substance. Redemption demands restitution and reparation, he noted, and “a new sense of freedom both for the victim and the victimizer.”

“It is my hope that we will be deeply committed to making this symbolic act a reality,” added Bishop Nathaniel Lindsey, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.  

The service was sponsored jointly by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the denomination’s Council of Bishops. A study guide also has been developed to explore the historical roots of racism in the division of the church and to prepare United Methodists for acts of repentance.

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--Linda Bloom

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