Jul 16, 2019

By John W. Coleman

In her June 13 State of the Church Report to the Eastern PA Annual Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson addressed several topics but zeroed in on a singular, hopeful theme. In the words of an old, popular Al Green R&B song, it’s “Let’s stay together.”

Lamenting The United Methodist Church’s growing impasse over whether to condemn or condone homosexuality in ordained ministry and marriage, the episcopal leader told Annual Conference members, “We will be sorely hurt and our effectiveness and witness will suffer if we divide over this. We need each other.  We especially need the people we don’t agree with.”

In comments during her State of the Church Address, her first in 11 years as bishop, she admitted “the divide is deep. The fight has been going on for some time and it is entrenched. 

‘We United Methodists disagree on almost every social issue there is: war, immigration, abortion, gun control, Israel and Palestine, death penalty,” she said. “I deeply respect your right to your opinion and your heart.”

But, she added, “If Jesus asked you to find a way to work together, would you do it? I respect everyone’s right to follow their understanding of Scripture, but remember how much we need each other.”

Bishop highlights conference ministries

Citing appeals for unity that defines the church and its mission—from Ephesians 2:19-22 and a recent Council of Bishops statement—Bishop Johnson extolled recent ministries happening across the conference’s four districts. Her cabinet of district superintendents did likewise in their later report. 

Among her highlights: response to natural disasters; training in Bible study, preaching and church leadership; ambitious church and community development projects; medical missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo; local initiatives in housing and feeding ministries; youth leadership development; training for more cross-racial/cross-cultural church ministries; and leading efforts to dismantle racism and injustice.  

She offered her own hopes and dreams, including: more evangelism and discipleship growth; continued work to “heal the breach of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism”; a greater commitment to personal and social holiness; and a “smooth transition in 2020 to a new bishop.”

Bishop Johnson announced that she will not retire in 2020, as many have wondered, but she would look forward to serving a final quadrennium in another conference, after 12 years of leading the Philadelphia Area.

“I have loved you all so much and appreciated the faithfulness, the deep faithfulness of laity and clergy, the vibrant diversity, the amazing missions and ministries,” she said. She added that whether or not the Northeastern Jurisdiction will lose a bishop in 2020 and have to realign episcopal areas due to its decline in overall membership has yet to be decided.

Yet, she reiterated that her priority concern is denominational healing and unity. 

‘A great deal of hurt and suffering’

Bishop Johnson explained the February 2019 Special General Conference’s approval, by a narrow 54-vote margin, of the proposed Traditional Plan that strengthened prohibitions against full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in ordained ministry and marital rites. But she lamented the impact that “caused a great deal of hurt and suffering to the LGBTQIA community,” suffering she said she has witnessed since February in visits to 29 churches and in meetings with various groups across her two conferences, Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware.

‘It is hard to say one is truly welcome if they are denied full inclusion, such as heterosexual people have,” she said. “This is, of course, the point of our division; and people of goodwill in this conference and the denomination are of different beliefs.”

“Personally, I supported the One Church Plan,” she said, “because I believed it would give space for everyone to live out their conscience, and the unity of the church would be best preserved. Among the bishops, 87 percent supported it. It was not a perfect plan, but it allowed for some flexibility and freedom.  

“It is my prayer that we will someday find peace over this and not divide,” she continued. “Schism is never the will of God, but it is necessary at times because of our human frailty and lack of creativity.” 

The bishop voiced her wish that “we were more like the Acts 15 church, where the Jerusalem Council simply allowed people the freedom to do things differently and not adhere to a certain set of laws.” She also favored the Apostle Paul’s vision of unity expressed in 1 Corinthians 12, “where each body part is respected and cherished and indispensable.”

Acknowledging that the 2020 General Conference may mean “voting on this impasse once again,” possibly with new results, she ended her report ever faithful to her main message: “So let us be prayerful. Let us be in love and charity with one another. Let’s believe that with God, all things are possible, even unity among us.”

Council of Bishops statement

“The unity of the church is for the sake of the mission.  The unity of the church is a by-product of the mission. The mission of the church is derived from the nature of a missional God.  The mission of God breaks down barriers and transcends languages…

…The faithfulness, unity and fruitfulness of the church form a whole. We cannot be one without abiding in Jesus, we cannot be spirit-filled without loving our neighbor; we cannot experience revival as we sow divisions in the body.”