The election of a lesbian activist as bishop (which is being challenged) by the United Methodist Church’s fast-declining U.S. Western Jurisdiction has provoked many reactions from across our denomination, including from currently active bishops.
Such reactions typically include calls to pray for our denomination, which is always appropriate. We should be in fervent prayer for our troubled, beloved UMC.
Here is a non-comprehensive listing of excerpts from some of the more notable reactions from individual bishops across our denomination (with emphases added):
“I awakened this morning [July 16] to the news that the Western Jurisdiction had elected an openly lesbian elder to the episcopacy.
The Southeastern Jurisdiction had already concluded so can take no action. However, the South Central Jurisdiction meeting in Kansas was still in session and voted to ask the Judicial Council of our church to render a declaratory decision on the legality of this action as soon as possible.
I am hopeful that the Judicial Council will declare this action by the Western Jurisdiction null and void.”
“These conversations [about sexual morality] have never been easy, but now must take place against a backdrop of heightened anxiety and uncertainty. Last week, the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a new bishop. Dr. Oliveto is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. In response to her election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council regarding the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of her election. The Judicial Council now has this matter properly before them.
Faithful United Methodists believe our discipline must change in relation to human sexuality and are working in appropriate ways to bring about that change. Other faithful United Methodists believe our discipline must remain the same and are also working in appropriate ways toward that end. I join my colleagues in the Southeastern College of Bishops in viewing the acts of nonconformity as a violation of our covenant and as divisive and disruptive. Nothing in recent days has changed our Book of Discipline – only General Conference has that ability. I grieve over the deep divisions we face.
I remain committed to the vows I undertook when I was consecrated a bishop in The United Methodist Church and will continue to strive to live by the covenant that binds and upholds us.”
“Last week, United Methodists around the nation gathered in five jurisdictional conferences to elect new episcopal leaders. The Western Jurisdictional Conference on July 15 elected Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, to the episcopacy. Oliveto has been legally married to a woman for more than two years.
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference, which includes the Oklahoma Area, also was in session when the WJC election occurred. SCJ delegates voted, 109-84, to request a ruling on this election from the Judicial Council, which is the denomination’s supreme court.
The action of the Western Jurisdictional Conference on Friday [July 15] breeches the rules and policies in the Book of Discipline that govern The United Methodist Church. This vote by the bishops and delegates of that region tears at the covenant that connects us as one united Church. Paragraphs to note in the Discipline are 304.3, 2702, and 161F.
Let us together continue to uphold the Discipline as our anchor in dealing with issues that affect our lives together.”
“Sadly, however, the United Methodist Church is in a fragile place.
Many in our church are working to amend our Book of Discipline’s current position on human sexuality utilizing the processes our polity has in place for making such changes. Many others are working to maintain our Book of Discipline’s current position on human sexuality. This, too, is being done within the context of our polity. But there are others, including Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops, Annual Conferences and a Jurisdictional Conference that are intentionally rejecting our church’s stance regarding marriage and ordination. This includes the recent consecration of Karen Oliveto, an openly gay woman married to another woman, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.
Our connection as United Methodists is maintained in several ways: 1) through our membership in the Body of Christ; 2) by The Book of Discipline; and 3) in our vows as deacons, elders and bishops. But, ultimately, the thing that holds us together is our willingness to live together as we have promised. When this begins to disappear, as now appears to be the case because acts of nonconformity, it threatens our church’s unity.
Please enable the commission to do its work through your actions and your prayers. While I expect Arkansan United Methodists to continue to do this, I need to be transparent and let you know that I will continue to address any violations of The Book of Discipline.”
“Many of you are also aware that the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected and consecrated a bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. When jurisdictions were established eighty years ago, it was acknowledged that regional differences existed in our denomination. The events of last week indicate that differences still exist across the various regions of our church.
As I stated in my Episcopal Address during the Holston Annual Conference, I am committed to upholding and following The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Every person before they are ordained answers John Wesley’s historic questions which conclude with “And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake”. I understand that there are those in our connection who are not in agreement with our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. However, we will keep our rules as stated in The Book of Discipline until the General Conference changes them. If we do not do that, we will have chaos.
I bid you pray that we will find a way through this current season of unrest and unwillingness of some within the United Methodist Church to keep the covenant that we have promised to keep.
Let me ask that you keep the promises you have made and be faithful to your local church. Continue to uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.”
“The recent developments in our denominational church intensify the uncertainty that The United Methodist Church is facing. Its future is most likely to unfold in an unpredictable or even unprecedented way. All kinds of thoughts and scenarios about the future of our denomination may be being played out in the minds of many people. The unity of the church is at stake. But God’s people, it’s not over until it’s over.
Please, pray, pray, pray, and pray. …
Please know that the Cabinet and I are committed to uphold the covenant of the Discipline of our church. Please also know that, as far as human sexuality is concerned, nothing has changed in the current Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The action of one annual conference is not binding on other annual conference, nor are the actions of the Jurisdictional Conference binding. General Conference is the only place that can change the church laws.
I understand that our church is like a boat in the midst of a fierce storm. But Jesus is in the boat.
Knowing the magnitude of the task and that its impact will be of historic proportion, please give time to wait on the Commission [on sexuality now being appointed by the Council of Bishops] even if others in the Church are not doing so.”
In his sermon for consecrating new bishops at the close of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference, Bishop Mike Coyner of Indiana, my own bishop, warned against “the temptation to be relevant” to the surrounding culture, which provokes some church leaders to forget that “the gospel is always relevant” and instead try “to tweak it and change it,” or even take “the latest fad” and “call it a movement of God.” He also recalled that after the horrific Orlando nightclub shootings, some United Methodist bishops had received e-mails telling them, “you are the co-murderers, because you didn’t change the Book of Discipline.”
Then beginning around the 48:00 mark of this video, Bishop Coyner received some applause for saying the following, in apparent reference to the Western Jurisdiction’s election of Dr. Oliveto the previous evening: “Don’t let anybody else’s lack of faithfulness keep you from being faithful and supportive of your leaders. Don’t let the Western Jurisdiction become your excuse not to be a faithful United Methodist who loves and cares about your church and its leaders.”
Still other bishops, such as Bishop Larry Goodpaster of Western North Carolina, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of North Alabama, Bishop Jonathan Holston of South Carolina, have issued statements committing to do their part to hold uphold our denomination’s governing Discipline, exhorting us to trust in the Lord, and notably using such words to describe our denomination’s current situation as saying that the UMC stands at a “crossroads,” “ It is a tumultuous time in our denomination,” and that our denomination is in need of prayer “at this critical time” as we “move into an uncertain future.” Bishop Holston’s statement also identified Oliveto as “a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.”
Before Oliveto’s election, Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, President of the UMC Council of Bishops characterized the General Conference action referring sexuality-related petitions to a special commission now being appointed as “hit[ting] the pause button.” Bishop Ough told United Methodist News Service, “Personally, I would like to see people and conferences honor that,” in apparent reference to the potential election of an openly homosexually partnered bishop. Bishop Ough’s statement after Oliveto’s election was widely distributed and commented on elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, a couple of the Western Jurisdiction bishops were more positive about Oliveto’s election.
Bishop Grant Hagiya of Seattle claimed that the Holy Spirit had led Western Jurisdiction delegates to make this choice, and further said, “We understand there may be some political implications, but in our mind this was the best person. It was not a question of (sexual) orientation, it was a question of who was the best spiritual leader. The body spoke and said ‘Yes, this is the one.’”
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of Denver, whose episcopal area Oliveto was assigned to take over, urged United Methodists in that area to “welcome the first ‘out’ gay bishop in our Church,” characterized the election as being led by God, and seemed to adopt a mockingly dismissive tone in summarizing the reactions of others:
“Many people will say many things about this election.
Some will assume that a secular ‘gay agenda’ has taken root within the church, overwhelming Christian, biblical values.
Some will say it defies church law, which declares homosexuality ‘incompatible with Christian teaching,’ and prohibits ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’ from serving as ordained ministers.
Some will say that it undermines the ‘Way Forward’ being led by the Council of Bishops to address the deep theological and ethical divides within our Church – that it will split the church.
Some will say that it’s too little, too late – that the church has betrayed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer folk for too long and continues to exclude and hurt them day by day.
Some say, I just wish ‘they’ would be discreet and not rub ‘our’ noses in ‘it.’”
UPDATE: United Methodist News Service reached across the world to quote Bishop Eduard Khegay of Moscow as saying that “I do not see this election in accordance with the Book of Discipline,” and that it would be “impossible” for him to accept Oliveto as a colleague bishop. He also said, “This reminds me of the communist time in Soviet Union when we had ‘selective justice,’ which means the law is applied selectively: Some people should follow the law, but others at the top can ignore it.”
(Note: We are at that time in the life of our denomination in which many U.S. bishops are in the process of playing “musical chairs,” trading their locations within their respective jurisdictions. To minimize confusion, I have identified bishops by the areas they currently are assigned to lead, which do not officially change until September 1.)