Bishop James K. Mathews (STH ’38) honored for life’s work
Mathews brothers and their works honored
By John W. Coleman (freelance writer and videographer)
NOTE (from Maggie Keelan, STH Development Officer):
Bishop James K. Mathews (STH ’38) is a proud alumnus of Boston University School of Theology. Our sister seminary, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, honored him and his brothers’ work at a historic symposium on Dec. 17-19. The New England Conference of the United Methodist Church also contributed to hosting this splendid event.
Three United Methodist bishops with ties to the Baltimore-Washington Conference honored a fourth, retired Bishop James K. Mathews, and his deceased brother, the Rev. Joseph W. Mathews, at a historic symposium Dec. 17-19. Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, hosted the event.
Washington Area Bishop John Schol; his predecessor, retired Bishop Felton May; and retired Bishop Susan Morrison, formerly a clergywoman in the conference, were among the noted speakers at the symposium. They joined the Revs. William Holmes and Bruce Birch, both retired Baltimore-Washington Conference clergy, in extolling and examining the impact of the Mathews brothers and their trailblazing ministries.
With the theme, “Transforming the Legacy: People of the Spirit in the 21st Century,” the symposium’s key purpose was to celebrate the seminary’s opening of the Joseph W. Mathews Archive at its campus library. The collection of published and unpublished writings are available for use in graduate and scholarly research. A ribbon cutting outside the library highlighted the event.
Both Mathews brothers were lauded as pioneers and change-agents in the tradition of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. The gathering of about 150 included seven members of the Mathews family.
James Mathews served as a missionary in India, a bishop in the U.S. and an interim bishop in Zimbabwe, as well as head of world missions for 14 years for the denomination’s former Board of Missions. In each appointment, he championed the causes of mission education and social change, as well as interfaith cooperation and racial progress. Today he is “Bishop-in-Residence” at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in the nation’s capital.
The Rev. Joseph Mathews also broke new ground five decades ago by teaching practical theology and congregational renewal as a seminary professor and founding dean of the innovative Ecumenical Institute in Chicago. The institute, a lay and clergy religious order that attracted thousands of members and visitors, modeled interdependent, Christian-community living and community organizing. It grew to become the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA) with a global presence in more than 40 countries, offering training, human development activities and community building strategies.
Mathews died in 1977. His surviving heirs and the institute donated his personal archive—including letters, research and dissertation materials, books, manuscripts and other writings—to Wesley in 2008. The seminary’s library is working to ensure their preservation and availability for academic research, including plans to digitize much of the collection and add presented papers and video recordings from the symposium.
The seminary is trying to raise funds for the digitization, which would make the archive more accessible online to the wider public.
In praising Wesley for creating the archive, along with its other initiatives, Bishop Schol used words that seemed to refer to the Mathews brothers themselves. He commended the seminary for “narrowing the distance between biblical scholarship and biblical living, between church history and present-day reality, between theological thinking and heart living.”
Schol commended Joseph Mathews for shepherding an “Acts 2” community in the troubled neighborhood known as Fifth City, on Chicago’s West Side, “in which they shared all things in common and gave to any who had need.” He also praised Bishop James Mathews’ for stimulating change through his cultural sensitivity, his “inquisitive mind” and his keen influence on the Council of Bishops and on the episcopal areas where he served.
Bishop May, sharing a vision for leadership in urban mission, lamented the relentless poverty, violence, drug abuse and other crises in urban centers, along with the church’s declining presence and relevance. He called upon the denomination to challenge these and other social ills in more meaningful ways.
“The programs that have been sanitized by our General Conference do not touch the heart of the pain and suffering that goes on in our cities,” May said. “How can we be in ministry with them (the poor) when we do not know them, because we’re still shielded by our paternalism and do-goodism?
“What will it take for The United Methodist Church to move beyond its brilliant programs and just get down and dirty,” he implored as listeners applauded.
May lauded the “pedagogical methodology” taught and used by both James and Joseph Mathews as one that invites the imagination and the Holy Spirit to reveal problems and possible solutions through reason, emotion and action.
“I’ve taken a bit of your pedagogy as I’ve moved around the world among some of the poorest nations,” he said, speaking particularly to ICA members in the audience. “All over the world, the light of compassion and the brilliance of this organization of human resources shine brightly because of these two men and because of you.”
Bishop Susan M. Morrison recalled Bishop Mathews’ seminal 1959 book, Eternal Values in a World of Change, newly republished with a foreword that she wrote. She spoke of its timeless principles, still relevant today, that address various “situations in life and in our relationships with each other.”
Morrison echoed Mathews’ urging for Christian leaders to be actively, responsively engaged in the world by “participating with one another, studying and reminding ourselves of the eternal message of God’s love.”
The Rev. William Holmes recalled the profound impact that both Mathews brothers had on his life and ministry. Joseph Mathews challenged him, as his professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, “with the radical implications of what it means to live in Jesus Christ.” And Bishop James Mathews appointed him in 1974 senior pastor of Metropolitan Memorial UMC in the nation’s capital, where he served for 24 years.
Holmes recalled using methods learned from Joseph Mathews to train teachers in the principles and praxis of religion and culture, while also pursuing James Mathews’ vision of making Metropolitan Memorial an influential voice in addressing important national issues.
“His vision was always global, but his praxis was local,” Holmes said of Bishop Mathews, listing some of the bold steps Mathews took to help foster social change. Among those steps: meeting with U.S. presidents and foreign leaders; challenging racism and trying to integrate an all-white, Mississippi church in the 1960s with the help of fellow Bishop Charles Golden, who was black; welcoming and aiding Native American marchers in 1978 on their “longest walk” from California to the National Mall to demonstrate for their treaty rights; helping to organize the Interfaith Conference of Washington D.C., today considered one of the most diverse local interfaith councils in the nation; and helping to create the Council of Bishops’ historic 1978 document, “In Defense of Creation.”
The Rev. Bruce Birch, who retired in 2009 after 11 years as dean at Wesley, similarly recalled being influenced by the Mathews brothers as a seminary professor for 38 years. Describing major changes in theological education in the past and current century, Birch credited Joseph Mathews with “raising up and equipping leaders for a new church and a new world.
“I will always count bringing Joe Mathews’ archive here to Wesley as one of the most important things I was able to do as dean,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better place for it to be.”
In addition to other speakers, the symposium also featured six multi-session workshop tracks that addressed the church’s role in urban mission and human development, interfaith engagement, environmental stewardship, global health, education and corporate social responsibility.
“We plan to publish the papers that were presented but also content from these workshops in the coming months for the benefit of seminary students and scholars,” said the Rev. Maynard Moore, who coordinated the symposium’s planning and execution. “We want to draw attention to the Joseph Mathews collection and the important contributions of both these brothers to making the church more vital and relevant.”