By Donald E. Messer*
Whether engaged in peace-building, social justice programs or interfaith dialogue, United Methodists around the world are increasingly open to those of other faith traditions.
That’s the conclusion of bishops from Africa, Europe and the Philippines who responded to a questionnaire aimed at determining the extent of the church’s ecumenical and interreligious activities.
The survey, which included questions about the denomination’s Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, was prepared by the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.
“Clearly, bridging religious differences and reaching out for spiritual relationships are in the DNA of United Methodists globally.” said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the council’s ecumenical officer.
Bishop Christian Alstead of the Nordic-Baltic Area describes United Methodists around the world as “bridge-builders, always connecting the gap between Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, and Pentecostals. Some might not talk to others, but they will talk to the Methodists.”
The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., ecumenical staff officer, commended bishops in the denomination’s Central Conferences “for breaking barriers by leading their people in living out the vision and values of United Methodism as enshrined not only in the teachings of John Wesley, but in the Constitution and Discipline of the denomination.”
Providing ecumenical leadership
United Methodists are often called upon to provide ecumenical leadership. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner serves as co-chair of the National Council of Churches in Germany. Bishop Joaquina F. Nhanala, vice president of Mozambique’s National Council of Churches, noted that “the UMC is deeply involved ecumenically, providing leadership at the province and national level.”
Bishop David K. Yemba of the Central Congo has been vice-president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches. Bishop Benjamin Boni was the first president of the High Council of Protestant Churches in Cote D’Ivoire.
In the Philippines, Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan’s described his pastors as being “inclined to ecumenism” and “very open and friendly” to persons of different religious traditions.
Working across religious divides
United Methodists are well known for their openness to brothers and sisters of differing religious traditions, the bishops pointed out.
Bishop Nkula Ntanda Ntambo of the North Katanga area of the Congo reported, “We work hand in hand with Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal and indigenous religions. We respect one another and share prayer meetings, encourage dialogue, and in time of war work together for peace.”
Roman Catholic choirs in Cote D’Ivoire often sing at United Methodist marriages or funerals and vice versa. In Sierra Leone, it is not uncommon for Muslims and United Methodists to marry. “If a mother is a Muslim, she takes the children to the mosque on Friday for prayers and the father brings the children to church on Sunday,” Bishop John K. Yambasu reported. “When they reach age 18, the young person makes a decision as to which faith to embrace.”
Often, they work across religious lines to end violence and promote peace. “In Angola, United Methodists helped create an Inter-Eccleiastical Committee for Peace to stop the civil war,” said Bishop Gaspar Domingos.
Bishop Patrick Streiff of Central and Southern Europe described how United Methodists in the Balkans and Macedonia have sought to keep peace in times of war. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, added David Yemba, “Churches speaking with one voice can make an impact in a society like ours facing violence and other challenges.”
Increasing social harmony
Yet the bishops also repeatedly suggested more needed to be done to facilitate understanding and social harmony. Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco of the Philippines urged peace-making seminars for Muslims and Methodists in areas of conflict. Nigerian Bishop John Wesley Yohanna proposed organizing peace workshops between Muslim and Christian clerics and youths.
Survey respondents stressed the need for theological education to be inclusive of ecumenism and interreligious understanding. Bishop Jose Quipungo of Angola requested funds for his theological school. Bishop Eduard Khegay of Moscow recommended conferences on interreligious dialogue on both regional and national levels across Eurasia.
Some leaders emphasized that ecumenical and interreligious relationships should not be simply matters of conversation but manifested in mission. “Drill water holes in communities,” wrote Zimbabwean Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, “so that people of all faiths will have clean water.”
Liberian Bishop John G. Innis hopes “for joint projects benefiting impoverished children and helping persons living with HIV and AIDS.” In Sierra Leone, practical seminars were proposed that would help Muslims and Christians address violence against women.
In East Congo, Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda dreams of restoring his country, ravaged by years of war and 8 million deaths, with new schools and medical clinics, healing victims of rape and caring for orphans.
*Messer, president emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology and executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, serves as a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. News Media contact: Linda Bloom, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.