UMC reacts as most women ever elected bishop, plus first lesbian bishop

By Jessica Brodie

The United Methodist Church has elected the most women ever to serve as bishops—including the election of four African Americans and, by the Western Jurisdiction, the election of Dr. Karen Oliveto, a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.

Seven women were elected from four of the UMC’s five jurisdictions in the United States July 13-16. Fifteen bishops were elected total.

The Southeastern Jurisdiction, which includes South Carolina, elected the Rev. Sharma Lewis, who is also the jurisdiction’s first African-American female bishop, and the Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson. The Northeastern Jurisdiction elected the Revs. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and LaTrelle Miller Easterling. The North Central Jurisdiction elected the Revs. Tracy Smith Malone and Laurie Haller. The Western Jurisdiction elected Oliveto. The South Central Jurisdiction was the only jurisdiction not to elect a female this year.

Many are applauding the election of so many women (and women of color) into a position that once had none, especially during a year that also marks 60th anniversary of full clergy rights for women in the UMC.

However, Oliveto’s election is prompting much debate, and the South Central Jurisdiction voted July 15 to ask the UMC’s top court for a declaratory decision regarding same-sex church leaders. Currently, the UMC’s Book of Discipline (which constitutes the law and doctrine of the UMC) bans self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, but many in the church are staunchly advocating for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and intersex people, including being able to serve as clergy. The 2016 General Conference was set to address 56 legislative items on sexuality but voted 428-405 to shift sexuality discussion and all legislation to a study commission, plus possibly call a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to handle any proposals. The plan put forth by the Council of Bishops, “An Offering for a Way Forward,” means the UMC maintains its current stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching while the commission takes a deeper look at the issues.

Since then, several annual conferences have passed resolutions not to conform with non-inclusive church laws.

Some in the church view Oliveto’s election as a violation of church law, while others see it as the first step toward the UMC being a more inclusive church.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the UMC Council of Bishops, issued a statement noting Oliveto’s election raises much concern and that the COB is “monitoring this situation very closely,” even though he said the COB does not have the constitutional authority to intervene in the election.

“As a council, we continue to maintain that the proposal for a way forward and the formation of the commission is the best path,” Ough’s statement reads in part (click here for Ough's full statement).

In South Carolina, Bishop Jonathan Holston issued a pastoral letter to South Carolina United Methodists about Oliveto’s election, noting that the SEJ College of Bishops issued a letter at the beginning of the SEJ Conference calling for unity and prayer about deep divisions in the UMC over human sexuality and other issues.

“We recognize the pain felt both by those advocating for and those opposing change. We also view the acts of nonconformity as a violation of our covenant and as divisive and disruptive. As a College of Bishops, we are fully committed to keeping the promises we made at our ordinations and consecrations,” the SEJ COB statement reads in part.

Holston called for compassionate listening, gentle speech and prayerful discernment during this process as the UMC continues its work to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

“Let us remember that God is with us in the midst of our deep divisions and will guide and direct us into a preferred future as we earnestly seek God’s will for God’s church going forward,” Holston said. (Read his full statement here.)

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