Photo by Aaron Hardin/The Jackson Sun
Thomas Hoyt Jr.: A fanatic for ecumenism
Ecumenism is about being in relationships with other denominations, other people and all humanity, says the senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
April 17, 2012 | If a fanatic is someone who won’t change either his mind or the subject, then Bishop Thomas Lanier Hoyt Jr. says you can call him a fanatic for ecumenism.
“I won’t change the subject about what it means to have relationships with other denominations, other people and humanity,” Hoyt said. “It’s not just churches. Ecumenism is how you deal with human beings of all persuasions, which means that one has to be open to people who don’t have the same ideas.”
Hoyt is the senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, presiding over the East Coast region for the 141-year-old historically African-American denomination. Long before his 2010 appointment to that post, he was known as a scholar and a leader in the Christian ecumenical movement.
A former president of the National Council of Churches, Hoyt has written more than 40 articles for professional journals and publications, and he delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in 1993. He was a professor of New Testament studies for 25 years at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Howard University School of Divinity and Hartford Seminary. Before that, Hoyt served as pastor of several CME congregations in North Carolina and New York.
He has a B.A. from Lane College, Jackson, Tenn.; an M.Div. from Phillips School of Theology of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Ga.; an S.T.M. from the Union Theological Seminary, New York; and a Ph.D. from Duke University.
Hoyt visited Duke Divinity School to deliver the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You’ve been deeply involved in the ecumenical movement. Why is ecumenism important?
People call me an ecumenical fanatic, and I don’t think they quite understand what that means. I am fanatical about it. I define a fanatic as a person who will not change one’s mind and will not change the subject. In both instances, that’s been my case.
I won’t change the subject about what it means to have relationships with other denominations, other people and humanity. It’s not just churches. Ecumenism is how you deal with human beings of all persuasions, which means that one has to be open to people who don’t have the same ideas. That helps me navigate through various phases of life, to be open to receive what others have to give.
Q: What is the value of ecumenism from the vantage point of the CME?
From the beginning of the CME Church in 1870, we have been involved in ecumenism. The African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church started before we did, but all of them have their roots in the United Methodist Church. We came out of the Methodist [Episcopal] Church South. But we have never alienated ourselves from the larger church. We have always been ecumenical.
We’ve always had relationships with the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
When the Consultation on Church Union [COCU] encouraged people to go into parishes and have meetings to plan programs for the future, to work together across race and culture, the churches turned that down. That was disappointing to me, because I thought that’s what we were together for, to work together.
The CME Church and the black churches have always seen COCU -- and now CUIC -- as an organization that held out hope for the races to get together and to see if they could not work together.
[The Consultation on Church Union was an effort begun in 1962 to merge a number of Christian denominations. When the denominations rejected merger in 1969, the group’s focus shifted to “intercommunion.” COCU was dissolved in 2002, succeeded immediately by Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC).]
Q: What prompted you to get involved in COCU?
I was a student at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., and a woman there was very instrumental in putting me into the Student Christian Movement. As president of the campus Student Christian Movement, I went to Oberlin and other places and met people of different races from all over the world. That introduced me to a paradigm that I had not been used to.
I was brought up in Alabama, where you had segregation, colored fountains, and I couldn’t go into the restaurant and get a cup of coffee. But when I got to college, this lady took me to Oberlin, Ohio, to Nashville, Tenn., to other integrated communities, where I started meeting people of various races and cultures. That gave me a sense that the world is larger than what I had been used to.
Q: When was that?
Q: That was really quite a period.
It was. Martin Luther King was going through the nation breaking down some barriers. And I was being introduced to ecumenical work because of good teachers and role models like Martin Luther King.
My father was not quite as out-there with integrating, but he was always instilling in me a sense of “somebody-ness” -- that you are somebody special, that you can do what you need to do to make an impact. But when he saw Dr. King going around, he said, “Why don’t that man stop going and stirring up stuff?”
A lot of black people did not have the notion that Martin King was a hero at that time. They saw him as stirring up things. King was one of my heroes, and I think that what he did was to stand up for what he thought was true and right and good for the people.
Q: Change can be a frightening thing.
Well, my father wanted things to change, but he didn’t quite see how they would change. When we’d get ready to go on trips, he would fry some chicken and put it in a basket or bag, knowing we couldn’t stop down the highway, because we couldn’t go in those restaurants.
People fighting against oppression sometimes end up oppressing, because they don’t know how to have another value system.
Q: Tell us about your work with the National Council of Churches. You were president and were involved in social justice work around the Immokalee farm workers.
I went down on the farm to encourage some of the workers to say that they needed better wages, and also some remuneration for insurance and all that. We worked on that. It had already started when I came on as president, but I tried to give it some high visibility, which we did.
Q: Were you criticized internally for that?
No. I didn’t get any criticism from my people so much as I got encouragement.
Martin Luther King faced criticism, however, when he started going into the subject of Vietnam and extending the civil rights movement into Vietnam. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” which, of course, it is.
We can’t be selfish about helping other people, be they black, white, Mexican, Indian or whatever. Where there’s injustice, we have an obligation to speak out and to bring what powers we have to bear upon those instances.