In the first such meeting in more than a century, bishops of four Methodist denominations gathered in Atlanta recently to discuss several forms of cooperation that could lead to a plan for unification.
Episcopal leaders of the United Methodist Church met for five hours with bishops of three predominantly black denominations - the African Methodist Episcopal, African Mwthodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches.
AME Zion Bishops Herbert Bell Shaw of Wilmington, N.C., who presided, reported later that "no major difficulties were raised on any issue." He said "there are many things we can do, and eventually we Methodists in American will be one family."
The bishops called for a feasability study of a "federal union" of their denominations, under which some autonomy and identity of each would be preserved. They also urged participation in a common celebration of the bicentennial of American Methodism in 1984 and a joint effort the next time a new hymnal is considered by the churches.
As a initial step, the seven bishops at the meeting agreed to plan a joint meeting of all bishops of their denominations for next spring. A planning session is scheduled in six months to lay groundwork for such an event.
Other suggestions by the bishops included exploration of a comon thelogical seminary in West Africa, joint publishing ventures, fuller exchange of information among the four denominations and possible establishment of a thelogical commission to consider black and liberation theology from the Wesleyan standpoint.
CME Bishop Elisha M. Murchison of Cincinnati said no ecumenical meeting in recent years had made him "more comfortable and happy" than this one. "We've been too far apart too long." he said.
Presiding Bishop Richard Allen Hildebrand of the AME Church reported that "everybody was open and it was a constructive meeting." He stressed that "we started with things that can be done without fromal legislation," although some proposals will go to respective churches, general conferences for approval.
United Methodist Bishop James K. Mathews of Washington, D.C., said there was "great enthusiasm for greater closeness" among the denomiations.
Other participants were AME Zion Bishop Ruben Lee Speaks of Roosevelt, N.Y., CME Bishop Joseph C. Coles Jr. of Atlanta, and United Methodist Bishop Paul W. Milhouse of Oklahoma City.*