By Jessica Brodie
The United Methodist Church’s top court has ruled that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law.
In 2016, the UMC’s Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Karen Oliveto as a bishop. Openly homosexual, Oliveto is married to deaconess Robin Ridenour and now serves as resident bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone annual conferences. However, the Book of Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (Para. 304.3).
The Judicial Council, the UMC’s top court, ruled 6-3 April 25 in Decision 1341 that Oliveto’s consecration is “not lawful,” though she remains in good standing until an administrative or judicial process is complete.
“Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law,” the decision reads in part. “It is not lawful for the college of bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.”
The South Central Jurisdiction brought the petition to the Judicial Council for a decision.
The decision also ruled that an openly homosexual bishop may be charged with disobedience to church law, along with others who actively participate in the consecration.
Read the decision in full at www.umc.org/decisions/71953.
Across the denomination, bishops, groups and other church leaders have voiced varying views about the decision, though most said it was no surprise given the specific wording of the Discipline. That wording is currently under review by the Commission on a Way Forward, which will present its recommendations to the Council of Bishops and will be further reviewed at a special called session of General Conference in February 2019. Only General Conference speaks for the church and has the authority to change the Discipline.
South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston said Decision 1341 is a lengthy and technical one, and he called for United Methodists to be a testament to the love of God, the saving power of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as we seek God’s will and engage our communities for the sake of the Gospel.
“United Methodists around the globe are in a season of prayer for God’s guidance as we seek resolution to the deep division in our denomination over human sexuality,” Holston said after the ruling. “This Judicial Council ruling represents an additional matter for our prayers, along with the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the called 2019 General Conference.”
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the UMC Council of Bishops, released a statement after the ruling expressing the COB’s appreciation for the Judicial Council’s careful consideration of this matter and for the thoughtful and considerate participation of all parties to the case, noting that the court has a critical role in the UMC’s governance structure.
“We implore all within the United Methodist structure and family to honor the Judicial Council ruling. Yet we acknowledge that the decision does not help to ease the disagreements, impatience and anxiety that permeates The United Methodist Church over the matter of human sexuality, and particularly this case,” Ough said. “Our compassion and prayers of intercession extend to all those who are hurt, relieved, confused or fearful.”
Ough noted the court’s decision “does not change the Book of Discipline” and only General Conference can do that.
“We are confident of the work that the Commission on a Way Forward has begun, and we believe the Holy Spirit is working through the Commission and Council to accomplish God’s purposes,” Ough added. “We continue to urge the entire church to stay focused on the commission’s work as our best opportunity to determine God’s leading for a way forward.”
Ough urged people to join bishops in daily prayers for all United Methodists and for the denomination.
“We put our trust in God to strengthen us even as we hold differing views about human sexuality,” he said. “We must continue to love one another just as Christ instructed us to do.”
Groups react to ruling
Several groups within or connected to the UMC are now speaking out about the ruling, whether in favor or opposed.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an association of congregations, clergy and laity who promote the ministry of the Gospel from a Wesleyan theological perspective within the UMC and ascribe to what they term “orthodox Methodist beliefs,” commended the court for its clear statements on the conduct of episcopal leaders, who they said are “avowed to uphold the doctrine and discipline of our global connection.”
“The authority of a bishop who so flagrantly defies the will of the church as expressed through General Conference will not be respected by a large segment of our denomination, and rightly so, the WCA statement reads. “There can be no unity without a shared commitment throughout our connection to abide by a common set of doctrines, standards and rules. And there can be no sustainable future for The United Methodist Church, as currently structured, without accountability for all our clergy, including our episcopal leaders.”
The WCA calls upon the Western Jurisdiction to accept and implement the decision of the Council, including promptly processing any and all complaints pending or that will be filed against Oliveto. It also calls upon those who feel they cannot abide by the Discipline to seek an honorable exit from the denomination.
“The entire burden is now squarely on the shoulders of the bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward and our next General Conference,” the WCA said.
Reconciling Ministries of South Carolina, a group that works to mobilize United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities in South Carolina to transform the church and world into what they call “the full expression of Christ's inclusive love,” said complaints and charges filed against LGBTQ persons based solely on sexual orientation and gender identity are harmful.
“It is these actions on the part of the UMC that are driving seekers of Christ away from our churches and that distract from our mission of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,’” said Dr. Jim Lane, chair of RMSC. “These actions can also be considered as a general attack on the evangelism, discipleship and mission potential of the United Methodist movement. They are harmful not only to those charged, but to the whole church.”
Lane said RMSC believes that it answers to a higher authority than earthly institutional power and will work to challenge and change unjust laws when they run contrary to the Gospel.
“RMSC stands in support of all LGBTQ clergy threatened by unjust actions,” the group said in a statement. “Bishop Oliveto’s election is a visible demonstration of what is possible within the UMC when the gifts, graces, and call to ministry of all persons are recognized and fully valued.”
Lane said they hope the church will finally admit that it benefits from the leadership of its LGBTQ clergy and members, that the fruits of their work are undeniable and that discrimination against LGBTQ clergy and members is in conflict with the UMC’s history, theology and ecclesiology.
“We hope LGBTQ will stop being sacrificed at the altar of the UMC,” Lane said.
Contrary to all logic?
Individuals, also, expressed both dismay and relief at the ruling—as well as acknowledgment that the top court was only following the rule of church law as it currently stands.
The Rev. Drew Martin, associate pastor at Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, said he doesn’t see anything complicated about the situation and those who find it complicated are, frankly, “indulging in wishful thinking.”
“The Book of Discipline is very clear that a self-avowed homosexual cannot serve as a clergy person in The United Methodist Church. It is well-known that Karen Oliveto is a self-avowed homosexual and is in a union with another woman. Therefore, it is contrary to all logic to think that it is acceptable for her to serve as a clergy person in The United Methodist Church, not to mention being elected and consecrated bishop,” Martin said.
Martin said the correct way to change the Discipline is at General Conference.
“Those who disagree with the Discipline’s stance on this issue have been trying to change it since before I was born, and they have failed,” Martin said. “Not only will they continue to fail, but they will continue to fail by wider margins because the UMC is growing more conservative globally. Therefore, I concur with the eminent theologian Billy Abraham’s recent call for a ‘Mexit’: ‘Surely it is a matter of basic moral integrity that those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting the United Methodist Church.’”
Dr. Phil Thrailkill, pastor of Main Street UMC, Greenwood, agrees with the court's ruling, though he said if Oliveto is not soon tried and disciplined in her own jurisdiction, the church has another problem at its feet.
“A common doctrine, a common discipline and process to deal with a small number of violations: that was our plan, but never the defection and rebellion of an entire jurisdiction and its leaders,” Thrailkill said. “And our current mechanisms are unable to address it, thus an ethical crisis, a crisis of faith and belief and a constitutional crisis all in one. It is a serious matter of basic integrity.”
Discrimination, bias and prejudice?
Dr. Kim Strong, pastor of Mount Holly UMC, Rock Hill, said he feels the Judicial Council's decision was a simple enforcement of the current wording in the Discipline regarding practicing homosexuals.
However, Strong said, “I feel that using a marriage license obtained by gay couples as proof that a chargeable offense has occurred will only serve to cause those called by God to the ministry to retreat back ‘into the closet’ and hide their true selves. I feel that the church is placing itself in a dangerous position when it decides, because of bias and prejudice, to reject those whom God has chosen.”
The Rev. Jim Morgan, pastor of the Ann Hope-Friendship Charge, Seneca, noted that when the Jerusalem Council met to decide what to do with the early apostles in Acts, they concluded that if their new movement was of God, nothing they did would be able to stop it.
“That captures how I feel about Bishop Oliveto’s consecration and the subsequent Judicial Council ruling,” Morgan said. “I believe in my heart that this new movement of the church to embrace our LGBTQ siblings is born of the Spirit, and that like the early church it will continue whether The United Methodist Church approves of it or not. The question for me is how long it will take us to realize what the Spirit is up to, and will we possess the spiritual foresight to follow, rather than be dragged tooth and nail into the church God is building. Thanks be to God it will happen one way or the other.”
The Rev. Jonathan Harris, associate pastor at First UMC, Myrtle Beach, said he is still struggling to come up with an emotion that adequately describes how he feels about the Judicial Council’s decision.
“I was not surprised by the ruling. On a rational level, I understand the ruling in light of the prohibitions listed in the Discipline. Moreover, I understand the biblical arguments that undergird the prohibitions listed in the Discipline,” Harris said. “However, I also understand that our Discipline calls upon The United Methodist Church to be inclusive, which ‘denies every semblance of discrimination’ (Para. 140). Can we truly be obedient to the Discipline’s call to inclusiveness while also singling out one particular group of people based on sexual orientation—which by definition is discrimination?”
Harris said that while much of what he has read and heard since Oliveto’s election last year has suggested that those who challenged her election were being “obedient” to the Discipline while those who elected her were intentionally “disobedient,” the situation is more complicated than that.
“Given the tension in our Discipline, what if it is not a matter of obedience or disobedience, but rather a matter of which parts of the Discipline people have felt compelled to obey: the parts about inclusiveness and not discriminating or the parts that place additional requirements (i.e., celibacy) on some clergy on the basis of sexual orientation?” Harris said. “As I shared in my sermon following the Judicial Council’s decision, I hope that we will all—at the very least—use this decision as impetus to try to understand those who hold differing views. I pray that those who agree with the council’s decision will come to understand that those who elected Bishop Oliveto, and those of us who wish to see the language of the Discipline changed, do so not in spite of Scripture or care for The United Methodist Church, but precisely because of those things. And I pray that those who are disappointed by the decision will remember that those who support the decision care just as deeply about the Bible and our beloved UMC as we do.”
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By Jessica Brodie