CLEVELAND, May 5 (RNS)--Putting on sackcloth and ashes, the United MethodistChurch confronted more than 200 years of institutional racism anddiscrimination that split John Wesley's Methodist followers into twodistinct camps--black and white.

In a stirring three-hour ceremony Thursday night, delegatesto the church's 2000 General Conference apologized to black churchesthat left the Methodist church because of pervasive racialdiscrimination. In addition, they apologized to black United Methodistswho still face racial prejudice.

The churchwide mea culpa is the latest apology in an unprecedentedseason of repentance that has seen Pope John Paul II apologize to Jewsfor the Holocaust and Christians apologize to Muslims and others for the medieval Crusades.

What was different about the Methodist apology, however, was thatthe church was seeking forgiveness both from within and without. Notonly did the Methodists apologize to others, they apologized tothemselves.

``Racism has lived like a malignancy in the bone marrow of thischurch for years,'' said Bishop William Boyd Grove, the ecumenicalofficer for the church's Council of Bishops. ``It is high time to saywe're sorry.''

Representatives of historically black denominations who split withthe Methodists were visibly moved by the apology and said they humblyaccepted it. They cautioned, however, that the apology must be more thanwords.

``For us, the true measure of repentance will come when the lightsare down and everyone has gone home,'' said Bishop McKinley Young of theAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church. ``There must not just be words, butthere must also be action.''

The church--the nation's second-largest Protestant body--ismeeting in Cleveland for its quadrennial meeting to vote on policy,doctrine and canon law. While the rest of the meeting is expected to bedominated by the issue of homosexuality and a proposed globalrestructuring, Thursday's ceremony was a significant step toward unityfor United Methodists.

The Methodist tradition in America began in the late 1700s. Butgradually, issues of slavery and racism split the church into black andwhite, north and south. Three primarily black denominations--theAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal ZionChurch and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church--all split fromthe largely white churches that eventually merged as the United Methodist Church in 1968.

But racism continued throughout the life of the church. In 1939, thechurch established five regional jurisdictions in the reunified church,and added an additional ``Central Jurisdiction'' for black members. Aslate as the 1960s, white Methodist churches in the South were refusingto allow blacks to attend their worship services.

As bishops passed out small swaths of sackcloth and ashes in thebiblical tradition of lamentation, black and white delegates reachedacross aisles and embraced in silent sobs. Black and white churchleaders led more than 1,000 delegates and visitors in public prayers ofcontrition:

``Christ, our mediator, we acknowledge the sin of racism within ourbody against those who left and against those who stayed; We lament whatwe have done and what we have left undone. We are heartily sorry and wehumbly repent.''

Before the ceremony, blacks within the church expressed reservationsabout apologizing to other churches without acknowledging the racismthat still divides the church into black and white congregations. Theservice, however, put those fears to rest.

In a ceremony rich in liturgical symbolism and dramatic expression,the church sought to put a modern, human face on an age-old problem. TheRev. Anthony Alexander, a convention delegate from the CentralPennsylvania Annual Conference, used period costume to portray RichardAllen, the Philadelphia black minister who left to form the AME Churchin 1787.

``When will the church learn from its mistakes?'' Alexander asked.``It is now 2000 and the church is gathered together. Are there guardsin your churches keeping out those who are different? Are there guardsat your church?''

Grove said history has shown Allen and other black dissidents wereright in their moral objections.

``Richard Allen was correct that to the degree that we areauthentically Methodist, we cannot be authentically racist,'' Grovesaid.

Bishop Clarence Carr, representing the AME Zion Church, said blacksdid not leave the church for theological reasons but because their whitecontemporaries treated them as less than equal.

``We were compelled to leave not because of doctrinal differences,not because of statements, but because of practice,'' he said. ``Notwith what you said, but what you did. Not with symbolism, but withsubstance. And my hope is tonight that you would move from symbolism tosubstance.''