COMMENTARY: May we find a way to dwell in unity with each other

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.” Psalm 133

I have always found this tiny psalm to be curious. The image of sacred oil poured on God’s priest in such volume that is runs down his beard and onto the collar of his holy vestments does not exactly sync with my idea of unity. Get the Kleenexes! Dew on Mt. Hermon also is a puzzling analogy, this gentle water that covers an entire mountain! What they both have in common is a sense of pervasiveness. The oil and the dew are in abundance and they both are symbols of the Spirit which hovers consistently over the face of the earth and among all people.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Unity is like that. When people are living in harmony with one another it covers everything that has been divisive, it gets into the crevices of partisan debate and intellectual and ecclesiastical pride. The result of unity is abundance and provision for all. Psalm 133 says it is a blessing and it leads ultimately to everlasting life.

Unity is the oil and the water that is the fuel and sustenance that best drives the church into mission and ministry. Only as we are in unity can we get the job done with all of our varied gifts and graces working together for the good of the whole. Unity is often mistaken for uniformity of thought and heart but it is much deeper than that. It is a passionate commitment to stay in communion with one another despite even huge differences. It is born of the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:7)

Dwelling in unity is my prayer for the United Methodist Church. For years we have been a church divided over many social issues but in particular the practice, ordination and marriage of people who are lesbian and gay has taken center stage at every General Conference. Since 1972 there have been paragraphs in our UM Book of Discipline that forbid homosexual people from being ordained and our churches and pastors cannot perform holy unions or same gender marriages.

At the 2016 General Conference the bishops were charged with the task of leading the way in finding a solution to this impasse once and for all. What resulted was the creation of a 32-member “Commission for the Way Forward” (a group of highly diverse United Methodists from all over the world) who studied and prayed and worked on a plan for the bishops to consider for presentation at a specially called session of General Conference. The work has been done with grace and faithfulness for almost two years.

At the spring meeting of the Council of Bishops we voted to recommend the following:

Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commision on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the special session of the GC in 2019 that includes:

All three plans for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council. (“The Traditionalist Plan,” “The One Church Plan” and “The Connectional Conference Plan.”)

The Council’s recommendation is “The One Church Plan.”

We will have conversations about this proposal at our sessions of annual conference this year. In addition all of the documents will be available for further reading and study after July 8. In the fall we will be holding town hall meetings on each district to discuss these plans further. The General Conference will ultimately vote on this recommendation at the special session that will be held February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis. There are 12 delegates from the Philadelphia area (eight from Eastern Pennsylvania and four from Peninsula-Delaware) who will be among the 864 delegates from this world-wide church. What comes out of this General Conference will be the final decision of the church. We will have more conversations and meetings after General Conference to interpret the decisions and to plan further into our future together.

We are still on a journey and as we travel together we will pray, we will have respectful conversation, we will study and seek the Word of God. We will continue to be in ministry and mission to a world that Christ loved and died for. We will engage in justice ministries and works of compassion and healing. We will preach good news of salvation to all.

Through it all my prayer is for the unity of the church; unity that is pervasive and life-giving. Ultimately when we dwell together in unity we will be blessed and it will best enable us to be a blessing to the world out of love for Christ.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson serves as the episcopal leader of the Philadelphia Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference and the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference.

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