Embracing the Joy of Our Unity

May 14, 2024 |

A MESSAGE FROM OUR BISHOP (From NEWSpirit newspaper’s Spring 2024 issue)

“…so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” –Romans 12:5

I tasted grits for the first time at the age of 16 at an Atlanta diner. As a teenager from Philadelphia in 1972, this experience was quite novel to me, though I must confess, I never took a liking to grits.

I was in Georgia with my pastor attending the General Conference as a youth observer. Wow! As a 16-year-old, I was amazed, surprised and overwhelmed by the workings of The United Methodist Church. The newly formed denomination had formed from the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church in 1968.

As its own racial segregation was ending, The United Methodist Church was already engaged in the social issues of its time: the war in Vietnam, poverty, racism, equal rights and “homosexuality.” I realized I lived a pretty sheltered life, particularly about the engagement and workings of the church.

Through the nine General Conferences I’ve attended, and my study of our church’s history and policies, I’ve seen that The United Methodist Church embodies grit, passion and perseverance. It has taken more than five decades to resolve our issues over slavery, integration, ordination of women, merger, and LGBTQ inclusion. However, I use the term “resolve” loosely, as a vote by General Conference mark points of discernment rather than full resolution.

At the recent General Conference that concluded May 3, I witnessed a remarkable demonstration of grit, transcending any single matter. This event was characterized by three themes:

Unity and Celebration

Of the nine General Conferences I attended I never witnessed such unity. I thought there would be at least six “fights” over regionalization, human sexuality, the budget, the number of bishops, and a new pension program for clergy and lay employees of the church. It just didn’t happen.

There were differences of opinion and belief, but everyone worked together toward a stronger mission of the church through challenging times. All but a few votes passed by 80-90%. The unity led to celebration. Worship spontaneously broke out with singing and dancing in praise of God, inspiring preaching and joy. For the first time in a long time, we all belonged to the same team, the same church – all working toward a common mission.

Contextualization and Local Decision Making

The General Conference enacted big changes. It reduced its budget by 43% because it believes the local church is the outpost of our mission. It removed all language that previously restricted LGBTQ persons from fully participating in the life of the church and gave greater precedence to regional, annual conference and local church decision-making.

Widening, Including and Deepening

This was the first General Conference I witnessed where our African delegates where active and engaged in leading committees, speaking on the floor and offering legislation and compromise that assisted the church to move forward. The grit toward the goal of a more global church was beginning to come to fruition.

General Conference said we welcome all people. We celebrated UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) and its worldwide mission, and we deepened its commitment to help our neighbors around the world. The General Conference on behalf of The United Methodist Church took responsibility for sexual abuse and sexual misconduct and apologized to all survivors of abuse. We are deepening our commitment to be a better church.

Path Forward

Grits and grit both require an acquired taste—a blend of time, ability and steadfast determination. The United Methodist Church embodies this kind of grit. We are navigating diversity with grace and advocating for contextual decision-making while championing unity, not uniformity.

We are not only going wide but also going deep in our mission. And we are embracing the joy that breaks forth, not because our circumstances are perfect, but because in the midst of it all, God is with us.

We are United Methodists – belonging to God and to one another. Thanks be to God.