Robert S. Bilheimer '39 B.A., '45 M.Div., ecumenical leader, dies at 89
Editor's Note: The following was written by Patrick Henry '67 Ph.D. in religious studies and Bilheimer's successor as executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Bilheimer, 89, a Presbyterian minister who was at or near the center of much of the ecumenical activity of the latter half of the twentieth century, died on December 17, 2006, at the M. M. Ewing Continuing Care Center of Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, NY, from complications of a hip fracture and late stages of Alzheimer's disease.
He was born September 28, 1917, in Denver, CO. Educated at Yale (B.A., 1939; M.Div., 1945), he began his ecumenical activity as executive secretary of the Interseminary Movement 1945-48. From 1948 to 1954 he was concurrently program secretary of the New York office of the World Council of Churches and minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
In 1948 Bilheimer was administrative secretary for the First Assembly of the World Council in Amsterdam, and held the chief organizing role also for the Second Assembly (Evanston, 1954) and the Third (New Delhi, 1961). He was associate general secretary and director of the division of studies of the World Council in Geneva, Switzerland 1954-63, during which time he accomplished special missions to Hungary (1956), South Africa (1960), and the USSR (1962).
Returning to the parish pastorate, he served as senior minister of Central Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY 1963-66, but was called back to the ecumenical movement as director of the international affairs program of the National Council of Churches (1966-73) during the time of fierce debate about the Vietnam War.
In 1974 his career reflected the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement in the previous decade at the Second Vatican Council, when he became executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, affiliated with Saint John's Abbey and University in Minnesota. Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, founder and president of the Institute, credits him with being its "second founder," and remembers especially his insistence, "Don't just give me words. I want to see what you do." In the interests of what Bilheimer called the ecumenical study imperative of "thinking ahead together," he established a tradition of first-person discourse and open-ended agendas that is recognized in ecumenical circles around the world as "the Collegeville method." He retired from the Institute in 1984.
Bilheimer, who called himself an "ecumenical engineer," was both an organizational genius and an inveterate provider and provoker of thought. His books include The Quest for Christian Unity (1953), A Spirituality for the Long Haul: Biblical Risk and Moral Stand (1984), and Breakthrough: The Emergence of the Ecumenical Tradition (1989), his personal account of those momentous first four decades of the World Council. Of special significance is his telling the story of the "mission of fellowship through diplomacy" that he led to South Africa in the immediate aftermath of the Sharpeville uprising in 1960. He organized a consultation in Cottesloe that held the churches together, but the next year the prime minister demanded that the Afrikaner participants retract their agreement to the Cottesloe Report. All but one did. But that one, the late C. F. Beyers Naudé, went on to found the Christian Institute of Southern Africa and became an internationally recognized symbol of an interracial confessing church movement. Naudé always acknowledged that it was Bob Bilheimer who turned him around.
The experience of being sent in a new direction is common among persons whose lives Bilheimer touched. Speaking for many, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said on hearing of Bilheimer's death, "There was a time in my life when I was very cynical about ecumenical dialogue, but Bob Bilheimer would not let me rest in my cynicism. He drew me into new conversations that changed my life." Margaret O‚Gara, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, credits him with showing her that "commitment to Christ and proclamation of Christ are more important than divisions among Christ's followers. His perseverance in commitment to the work of ecumenism was creative and exemplary." Patrick Henry, Bilheimer's successor as executive director of the Collegeville Institute, praised "his mind fully capable of grasping academic abstractions-and a holy impatience with letting the matter rest there."
At the Collegeville Institute Bilheimer initiated a project that, for the first time, brought anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists together to study a religious culture—in this instance, that of Minnesota—resulting in a path-breaking book he edited, authored by Joan Chittister, OSB, and Martin Marty, Faith and Ferment: An Interdisciplinary Study of Christian Beliefs and Practices (1983), which registered early what has since become commonplace, the shifting of fault lines from between denominations to within them. Sister Joan said, on the news of Bilheimer's death, "He opened both my mind and my heart to the ecumenical world. He made my church bigger and my world smaller."
He received many tributes, including honorary doctorates from Chicago Theological Seminary (1954), Butler University (1954), and Hamilton College (1980). In 1985 Saint John's Abbey and University gave him their highest honor, the Pax Christi Award, which recognizes an individual of strong faith whose life exemplifies the importance of spiritual values and concern for the welfare of others.
Bilheimer's wife of 64 years, Dorothy Dodge Bilheimer, former director of the English Language Learner program of the St. Cloud (Minnesota) School District, their three sons, Robert E. (Bloomfield, New York), Richard (Houston, Texas), and Roger (New Canaan, Connecticut), and Robert's wife Heidi, were at his bedside when he died. He is survived also by Roger's wife, Courtney, by grandchildren Amy, Alicia, Laura, Brian, and Evan, and by former daughter-in-law Susan Kaye, MD. His sister, Frances, predeceased him.
A memorial service for the family is planned for early January. Other services or recognitions in places where Bilheimer served are welcomed by the family.
The family suggests memorial contributions recognizing Bilheimer's lifelong commitment to human dignity and ecumenism to the M. M. Ewing Continuing Care Center, Thompson Health, 350 Parrish Street, Canandaigua, NY 14424, or to the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Post Office Box 2000, Collegeville, MN 56321.