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

In a stirring three-hour ceremony Thursday night, delegates to the church's 2000 General Conference apologized to black churches that left the Methodist church because of pervasive racial discrimination. In addition, they apologized to black United Methodists who still face racial prejudice.

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

What was different about the Methodist apology, however, was that the church was seeking forgiveness both from within and without. Not only did the Methodists apologize to others, they apologized to themselves.

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

Representatives of historically black denominations who split with the Methodists were visibly moved by the apology and said they humbly accepted it. They cautioned, however, that the apology must be more than words.

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

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

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

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

As bishops passed out small swaths of sackcloth and ashes in the biblical tradition of lamentation, black and white delegates reached across aisles and embraced in silent sobs. Black and white church leaders led more than 1,000 delegates and visitors in public prayers of contrition:

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

Before the ceremony, blacks within the church expressed reservations about apologizing to other churches without acknowledging the racism that still divides the church into black and white congregations. The service, 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. The Rev. Anthony Alexander, a convention delegate from the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference, used period costume to portray Richard Allen, the Philadelphia black minister who left to form the AME Church in 1787.

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

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

``Richard Allen was correct that to the degree that we are authentically Methodist, we cannot be authentically racist,'' Grove said.

Bishop Clarence Carr, representing the AME Zion Church, said blacks did not leave the church for theological reasons but because their white contemporaries 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. ``Not with what you said, but what you did. Not with symbolism, but with substance. And my hope is tonight that you would move from symbolism to substance.''

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