Bishop Tuell, church law expert, dies at 90

January 13, 2014

United Methodist News Service - By Heather Hahn

Retired Bishop Jack M. Tuell, a widely respected expert of United Methodist church law, died Friday, Jan. 10. He was 90. 

“He will be considered one of the two or three giants of our council (of bishops) in the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century,” said retired Bishop William B. Oden, a longtime friend, who now resides in Santa Fe, N.M.

Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya added, “Bishops like him only come around once in a lifetime.”

As bishop, Tuell presided over the Portland Episcopal Area from 1972 to 1980, the Los Angeles Area from 1980 to 1992 and retired to the Seattle area.

He was president of two general agencies — the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. He delivered the episcopal address at the 1988 General Conference and served as president of the Council of Bishops from 1989 to 1990.

Tuell was influential in The United Methodist Church’s ecumenical work, both as president of the denomination’s ecumenical agency and later as part of the United Methodist/Evangelical Lutheran Church in America dialogue that eventually led to full communion between the two denominations.

But perhaps Tuell is best known across the connection as the author of “The Organization of The United Methodist Church,” which has helped generations of United Methodists better understand church governance and structure. “It was a book used in most polity classes in our seminaries,” Oden said.

Starting in the 1970s, Tuell took on the task from the late Bishop Nolan Harmon of revising the primer after each General Conference to include changes the assembly made to the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. His most recent edition was after the 2008 gathering of the lawmaking body. He also published an autobiography, “From Law to Grace.”

Until two years ago, he also taught United Methodist polity at Jesuit-related Seattle University School of Theology. “Thousands of UMC students have learned from him,” Hagiya said.

Hagiya said he often would call on Tuell for advice. Tuell spent his retirement years living so close to the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference office he could see Hagiya’s car and even told the younger bishop when his lights were on.

“He possessed a brilliant mind and knew our UMC system inside and out,” Hagiya said. “I am going to miss him the most for his wise counsel and gentle spirit.”

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, a retired Minnesota pastor and former top executive of the denomination’s ecumenical agency, considered Tuell a mentor and said he already misses Tuell’s guidance.

“He was the person I would turn to to help me understand all of the complexity of how justice and theology come together in the Book of Discipline, and how we need to interpret it as God calls us,” Robbins said. “And he, more than anyone else I knew, gave the most thought to that process.”

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