What does it mean to seek unity and understanding with fellow Christians whose traditions have oppressed the group to which you belong? This question was central to the work of Thomas Hoyt, Jr., a bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church and a former board member of the Collegeville Institute, who died in October. This question has also become central to the work of Beverly Goines, a pastor in the Disciples of Christ, a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in the fall of 2013, and a Ph.D. student at The Catholic University of America whose dissertation examines the ecumenical vision of leaders in the Black Church such as Bishop Hoyt.
Predominantly black Protestant churches in the U.S., which have come to be known collectively as the “Black Church,” emerged in the nineteenth century principally because of racism, discrimination, and segregation in predominantly white Protestant denominations. Black denominations such as the CME and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) churches did not break away from their parent denominations because of doctrine or polity, as is often the case in successions, but because black Christians were barred from leadership positions, segregated, expelled, and worse—because of their race. Because of this history, says Goines, “race and morality inevitably become part of the discussion any time representatives of black churches participate in ecumenical dialogue with predominantly white churches and organizations.”
These words appear in a recent article Goines penned for the February 2014 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. “In Memoriam: Ecumenism and the Legacy of Bishop Thomas Lanier Hoyt, Jr. (1941-2013)” pays tribute to Bishop Hoyt’s legacy in the ecumenical movement as a representative of the Black Church. According to Goines, Bishop Hoyt’s central question for the ecumenical movement—which seeks to build unity among Christians across divides—was not “How can we get the Black Church to participate?” but “Why should the Black Church participate given its previous disappointments?”
In the article, Goines notes that according to Bishop Hoyt, theology and ethics are inseparable in the Black Church. The Black Church advocates for a holistic approach to Christianity in which bringing justice to society is paramount and in which faith encompasses all of life. According to Hoyt, social justice issues must be resolved before ecumenical unity can take place. As Bishop Hoyt said to Goines in an interview, “There can be no ecumenical unity until racism, sexism, classism, and denominationalism are addressed because they affect the Eucharist, baptism, ethics, and the Nature of God. How we understand each other as human beings directly impacts how we experience God…” Bishop Hoyt was convinced that the history of the Black Church in relation to primarily white churches cannot be ignored if productive ecumenical dialogue is to take place.
“Hoyt insisted that ecumenism must be based on justice and peace,” writes Goines. For him, unity is dependent upon common action rather than theological agreement. “The different churches may not agree on homosexuality, abortion, women in ministry, or apostolic succession, but work must continue to bring forth some type of reconciliation. Each group must speak honestly about race, gender, and other issues, and each group must treat the other with dignity.” As Goines concludes, in Hoyt’s ecumenical vision shared mission across divisions is more important than organizational unity among Christians. Christians are called to join together purposefully to address corporate evil, marginalization, and oppression. Bishop Hoyt spent much of his life’s work speaking out about injustice. But he also spent much of his life’s work building peace. Goines’ work draws attention to Hoyt’s invaluable role as a leader in the Black Church and a leader in the ecumenical movement. In the wake of his death, may others take up the mantle of marrying ethics and theology in pursuit of Christian unity.
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Image courtesy of Flickr Commons, Ugo and Sarah by Anthony Easton