The Church on Trial

Bishop Karen Oliveto after being elected in July 2016.

Bishop Karen Oliveto after being elected in July 2016.

As I write these words, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has just begun hearing arguments in its April docket. One of those cases dominates the denomination’s attention and interest.

It’s the question of whether Karen Oliveto’s election as bishop last year in the Western Jurisdictional Conference is lawful under present church rule. Oliveto is a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” and is married to a same-sex spouse. This is forbidden by current United Methodist Church law, which is contained in the Book of Discipline (BOD).

The case was forwarded to the Judicial Council by the South Central Jurisdiction shortly after Bishop Oliveto’s election last year. Of course, the actual legal ruling has to do with matters of authority, jurisdiction, and precise terminology.

But in reality, this case mirrors the present impasse within the church, with implications that go far beyond the case of one particular bishop. If the election is upheld, then a great many people will argue that our laws have no force and that each jurisdiction will be independent. That is indeed, part of the Western Jurisdiction’s argument; they believe that church law gives authority to determine the credentials and qualifications of pastors and bishops solely to annual (regional) conferences and jurisdictions. Already, I have seen a conservative UM pastor complain on Twitter that, “We are basically in the position where each jurisdiction will become its own denomination if JC does not intervene here.”

If the election is rendered null and void, however, this will send a clear(er) message that LGBTQ folks are not to be considered candidates for ordination, much less the episcopacy. It will enshrine the BOD’s current language that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And it will make it even tougher for future change.

As if anticipating the anxiety that this case is dredging up, the Council of Bishops yesterday announced that there will be a special session of General Conference called for February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri, to hear the findings and recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward, which was created upon the decision of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

If all this simply confuses you, with its Methodist terminology, acronyms, and legalese, then let me simplify matters for you:

The United Methodist Church is headed for a decision point — finally. That decision point will NOT be reached this week. Regardless of what happens to Bishop Karen Oliveto, the real date to circle in red is the special session beginning on February 23, 2019. The decision on Bishop Oliveto will make half of the church around the world angry, and half will be satisfied, but it won’t really matter. The special session will be the event at which we decide whether we’re going to stay together, or get a big fat messy divorce.

I am aware that some observers believe there are three factions at play — conservatives, liberals, and moderates who just want everyone to get along. But I believe there is a much simpler division. Despite all the talk about orthodoxy, authority of Scripture, and denominational heritage, it all comes down to whether or not one believes that homosexuality is a “sinful practice.”

To date, there have been more Methodists who believe that, yes, homosexuality is a “sinful practice,” than those who don’t. That’s a sad commentary on the contemporary United Methodist Church, but it is the reality.

To date, the United Methodist Church has, in practice, opted for a “big tent” approach, meaning that it has been willing to overlook the fact that gays and lesbians already serve as clergy and lay leaders. But that is changing — from both ends of the spectrum.

Conservatives believe that the purity of the church is at stake; if homosexuality is a sinful choice and lifestyle, then it simply can’t be “accepted” by the church at large, and certainly not in church leadership. In this thinking, the immorality of homosexuality threatens the overall witness of the church.

Progressives are, quite frankly, tired of waiting for church doctrine to change. We don’t believe that homosexuality is a choice, nor is it a “practice.” We believe that a great injustice has been done to gay people, which has caused lasting damage. We know that our denomination’s teachings have contributed to self-harming behaviors, including addiction and suicide. In our understanding, the discrimination and shame foisted upon LGBTQ persons threatens the overall witness of the church.

I don’t think these two viewpoints can coexist in the same denomination. Either homosexuals are living in sin and need to change, or they are living out the fullness of their God-given being and are to be affirmed and encouraged to live out their vocations. It’s one or the other.

This is one of those times when the church is called to make an either/or decision. I think of Joshua, who stood in front of the people of Israel as they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. He challenged them: “Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Long before we voted to become a “Reconciling Congregation,” Kessler Park UMC made its decision. We decided to serve the Lord by standing firmly on the side of LGBTQ persons, because they “are” us. We refuse to go backward on the path of justice, and we extend our arms to those who have been excluded by the church from living their full personhood.

The rest of the United Methodist Church must also choose ...