|Robin Ridenour and Bishop Karen Oliveto|
Last July the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, formerly the Senior Pastor of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco, California, as Bishop and assigned her to oversee the Mountain Sky Area. Dr. Oliveto became the first openly gay bishop to serve our denomination.
For those who dream of a more inclusive church it was a high and holy moment. In a letter to her “Sisters and Brothers in the Western Jurisdiction,” Bishop Oliveto wrote:
“I stand amazed at this new thing God has done, and give thanks to you, my dear sisters and brothers, at the careful and prayerful way we responded to the Holy Spirit and allowed our fears to fall away so we could joyously cross the threshold of this new thing together. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love I have received from around the world—it is more than my heart can hold.”But even before the songs of celebration could echo their last chorus, other voices were raised in opposition. In a letter to the Mississippi Conference, Bishop James Swanson wrote:
“. . . after a spiritually blessing and joyous jurisdictional conference concluded, we received word late Friday night that our sisters and brothers serving as delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a new bishop. Dr. Oliveto is identified as a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
“As a result of her election, The South Central Jurisdiction Conference, in seeking clarity around her election, voted to petition the Judicial Council for a Declaratory Decision concerning Dr. Oliveto's election. A Declaratory Decision is a ruling by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality, meaning, application or effect of an action taken. This is now in the hands of the Judicial Council.”Just to be clear, when he says that they are seeking clarity, he doesn’t really mean that they are seeking clarity. He means that they want her election nullified.
On Tuesday the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church will convene in Newark, New Jersey to hear oral arguments on the motion brought by the South Central Jurisdiction asking that the election of Bishop Oliveto be declared invalid.
The contention of the South Central Jurisdiction is that since Bishop Oliveto is married to another woman, Robin Ridenour, she must be considered to be “a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” That would mean that she was in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and therefore, they argue, she should be ineligible to be elected Bishop.
The Western Jurisdiction holds that since the election of bishops is the responsibility of the jurisdictions, the South Central Jurisdiction has no standing to challenge what the Western Jurisdiction has done. She was an elder in good standing and she was fairly elected. That should be the end of it.
Each side believes they have a strong case. But the Judicial Council, as constituted by the 2016 General Conference, is dominated by conservatives, so that gives the edge to the South Central Jurisdiction.
Whatever they decide, we can be certain of one thing: this is going to hurt.
If the Judicial Council decides in favor of the Western Jurisdiction (Lord, hear our prayer!), then the traditionalists will be more determined to split the church. And if the decision favors the South Central Jurisdiction then then traditionalists will still want to split the church and more of the progressives will agree with them.
At first glance, schism does not seem like a bad option. And it has historical precedent.
In the 1844 the Methodist Church split over the slavery issue. And it only took us a century to come back together.
If the division is done by conferences, then there will be many churches that find themselves out of step with their conference. Traditionalist churches will find themselves in progressive conferences and vice versa. And if the division is church by church it will be even worse. Most churches are far from unanimity on this issue. Those on the losing side of a vote may well feel betrayed by people they counted as friends.
It will be ugly. And painful.
Of course, if we are honest about it, we know that the United Methodist Church has been an ugly and painful place for LGBTQ persons for decades. In the words of the old Confession, “We have not loved our neighbors as Christ hath loved us.”
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