The weekend before last, partnered lesbian United Methodist activist Karen Oliveto came to Chicago to deliver some public talks.
At one point, she revealed, “One of the things I really love is boxing.” During these talks, she pulled few punches in attacking our denomination’s adherence to biblical, ecumenical disapproval of homosexual practice – to the point of denouncing “bad” orthodox United Methodists, likening her experience to American slaves 160 years ago, and suggesting that several prominent figures in United Methodist history were secretly lesbians.
A self-described “lightning rod,” Dr. Oliveto has come to the center of our denomination’s theological controversies due to the Western Jurisdiction taking action last summer to elect her to become a bishop, in open defiance of our denomination’s ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy, and to assign her to be the bishop of the Mountain Sky Area (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and part of Idaho). Her election is being challenged through our denomination’s notoriously slow accountability mechanisms, but in the meantime she is acting as the bishop of this area.
Moving Methodism beyond Wesleyanism
Oliveto, who shared that she “came out” as lesbian in 1981, provocatively stressed that she was “not the first gay bishop” in our denomination, but rather “just the first openly gay bishop.” She specifically cited reports that the late Bishop Finis Crutchfield had had a secret life of being homosexually active, resulting in the AIDS that killed him in 1987.
She spent much time across the weekend passionately railing against the United Methodist Church’s ongoing adherence to biblical teaching and the 2,000-year global, ecumenical Christian consensus on sexual morality, which she blamed for such double lives. But her arguments showed little evidence of serious engagement with Scripture, with our denomination’s Wesleyan theology, or with the latter’s central concern of personal Christian holiness. She did at least follow the lead of more honest liberals nowadays in no longer stooping to ignorant arguments about the biblical texts not actually saying what they say in their consistent disapproval of homosexual practice. But she also fell back on the intellectually lazy equation of “heteronormativity” with racism and opposition to women’s ordination – apparently unaware of the wealth of biblical resources for supporting racial equality and women’s ordination. While Oliveto repeatedly suggested that Wesleyan theology was somehow a resource for her cause, she relied on rather shallow and long-discredited ideas about Outler’s so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral” to suggest that “experience” (as she broadly defined it) could somehow nullify the clear teachings of Scripture, without being able to cite any instance of Wesley actually doing that.
Interestingly, at one point in her Sunday sermon at First UMC in Evanston, she shared that in the last church she pastored, “about 15 percent of our congregation were atheists or agnostics.” She did recall countering some of this population’s skepticism about the Ten Commandments by defending them as offering a path for the Hebrew people to avoid returning to slavery. Of course, congregations should seek to draw in unbelievers and share the Gospel with them. But when the preacher is literally on record as defending possession by a demon as preferable, in at least some cases, to becoming free of the demon through the power of Jesus Christ, it is unclear how simply having atheists inside a nominally Christian church building actually draws them towards the Truth.
She devoted much of her Public Theology Lecture at Garrett-Theological Seminary in suburban Chicago, entitled “Strangely Warmed Hearts: A United Methodist In(Queer)y,” to uncovering a supposedly hidden history of our tradition’s “role models” for homosexually active United Methodists.
She presented a bunch of rather inconclusive, circumstantial, and anachronistic evidence to suggest that such noted historical figures in American Methodism as Anna Howard Shaw, Francis Willard, and Georgia Harkness were all really lesbians.
Oliveto also went on about John Wesley ministering to a Mr. Blair who had been imprisoned for sodomy. She stressed Wesley’s lack of expressed condemnation of Blair, appearing to hint at this indicating moral approval by the founder of Methodism of Blair’s alleged offense. But she completely ignored how serious Wesley scholars like Richard Heitzenrater have long noted the understanding of the Methodist community that Blair was actually falsely accused. She also ignored Wesley’s own negative (and rather un-PC) writings against the practices of “sodomites.”
So in sum, Oliveto made strong factual claims she could not muster sufficient evidence to prove, while ignoring key historical information that would undermine her assertions, all for the sake of rewriting history in the service of her political agenda. And yet she accused others of being the ones committing “historical revision” for allegedly suppressing such unproven history.
Attacking United Methodist Congregations
Oliveto aimed some of her most notable rhetorical blows against some of the very United Methodist congregations she is assigned (for now) to oversee. Since beginning to act as bishop, Oliveto and her lesbian life partner, Robin Ridenour—who she referenced multiple times in her talks and with whom she apparently has a legally recognized “marriage”—have embarked on a series of tours. Apparently they seek to at least make an appearance at every one of the Mountain Sky Area’s United Methodist congregations, stopping by as many as 12 in a day.
Yet within the safety of a supportive ideological echo chamber of a liberal seminary hundreds of miles away from her suburban Denver headquarters, Oliveto lashed out at four United Methodist congregations she visited that were “not as enthusiastic” about her becoming their bishop. She rather self-centeredly complained of the “soul damage” she says she suffered from this unhappiness of a small minority of those being placed under her power. She actually used the words “the bad churches” (that quote is clear in the audio recording) to describe these United Methodists and denounced them as a “destabilizing factor” in the region. (She did quickly re-characterize “the bad churches” as “the hard churches,” but expressed no regret at the first characterization.) Most of the rest of the congregations had been rather supportive, she found, as United Methodism in the region is generally branded as a more liberal alternative to other types of Christianity. She also declared her judgment that these few orthodox congregations were not legitimately United Methodist (in apparent contrast to liberal congregations whose theology is closer to Unitarian Universalism), and “really haven’t been United Methodist in a really long time.”
Apparently, Ms. Oliveto has no problem taking it upon herself to sit in public judgment over who in our denomination is or is not truly United Methodist, and does not see her own rejection of the Book of Discipline that literally defines United Methodism or her own adherence to a bizarre, Jesus-criticizing, demon-defending theology as posing any problems for her qualifications to sit in such a judgment seat.
While several bishops have spoken out against her election, Oliveto gushed about how the Western Jurisdiction bishops have been “tremendously welcoming.” She also recounted her pleasant surprise at how she was accepted at last fall’s meeting of our global Council of Bishops, at which her lesbian partner was even welcome to join a gathering for bishops’ spouses. And Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck could hardly have been more enthusiastic in introducing Oliveto while introducing as “my colleague,” acknowledging “her wife, Robin,” and declaring, “I thank God that Bishop Karen is with us, not only on the Council of Bishops, but with us this morning,” before Oliveto preached that Sunday.
In her introduction, Bishop Dyck cast Oliveto’s whirlwind tours of Mountain Sky Area congregations as an impressive story of how “she went to the margins…to meet the people.” But the actual record of her visit to one area shows that the overwhelming majority of her church visits were “selfie opportunities” described as “very short ‘in-transit’ stops…provid[ing] just enough time to take a picture,” and no time for Oliveto to actually get to know or hear from the people there. So given the immense, rather intimidating power the Western Jurisdiction is (for now) giving Oliveto to lord over pastors and congregations in this region, and understandable fears evangelical pastors may have of what she will do to them if she detects insufficient enthusiasm, such visits seem to largely serve a purpose of no congregation in the area being safe from being rather directly confronted with a lesbian activist bishop, or from being used for Oliveto’s self-serving propaganda pictures.
Given how some Western Jurisdiction bishops have been rather heavy-handed in their bullying, exclusion, and/or mistreatment of United Methodists who actually hold to orthodox United Methodist doctrine and values, Oliveto’s remarks offered little reason for hope that she would not be at least as repressive of what is left of evangelical faith.
Furthermore, across the weekend she showed little interest in accurately describing United Methodism’s biblically and ecumenically rooted stance on sexual morality or in understanding folk who support it.
She claimed that our denomination’s “structures against queer people” have “made contact with queer people almost impossible” and that the Discipline’s “funding ban” somehow stifles “conversations.” Actually, the funding ban rather explicitly allows denominationally funded discussions presenting a range of views on sexual morality, if only our church’s teaching is “fairly and equally represented.” It simply makes clear that if some activists want to organize some program or event with the express intent of opposing United Methodist teachings on sexual immorality, they cannot force United Methodist congregations or individuals who disagree with their agenda to be the ones to pay for it.
Her claim that traditionalist United Methodists act like same-sex-attracted people “have nothing to offer” clashes against such realities as:
- Our supporting loving, “compassion without compromise” ministries with self-described members of the LGBTQ community;
- Our urging the church to listen to individuals who live faithful lives as same-sex-attracted but celibate Christians; and
- The many ways in which the “Reconciling” movement and the Western Jurisdiction—both of which have counted Oliveto as a prominent leader—have so ruthlessly excluded such voices, and other theological traditionalists, as if we have nothing to offer.
During the Q+A time at Garrett, in response to a questioner asserting that our denomination would have officially liberalized on homosexuality were it not for the growing number of General Conference votes from Africa, Oliveto expressed her support for the so-called “global segregation plan.” That basic idea is to allow the U.S. part of United Methodism to make its own governance free from international input, as African United Methodists apparently have nothing to teach us Americans on such matters.
Almost immediately before lamenting how “there’s an empathy deficit in America right now,” Oliveto made a point of touting The Handmaiden’s Tale—a dystopian novel of a Christian theocracy taking power in America and instituting such totalitarian measures as reducing women to sexual slavery and legally forbidding them from reading—as a fair and accurate portrayal of “the religious right [taking] their precepts to their natural conclusion.”
Choosing to Stay in Slavery
As this was Martin Luther King Day weekend, Oliveto’s Sunday sermon noted America’s sad history with slavery, quickly moving to equate this with the “enslavement” of LGBTQ individuals like herself by the United Methodist Church, and accused our denomination of thus turning Christianity into “an enemy of the oppressed.”
In his famous letter to William Wilberforce, John Wesley denounced American slavery as the vilest form of slavery that ever existed in human history. American slaves faced such brutal atrocities as whippings, rapes, denial of education, and a totalitarian lack of freedom of religion, of expression, of assembly, of property rights, and of travel. Dr. Oliveto faces none of these things. As pastor of Glide Memorial UMC, she enjoyed a base salary of $94,747 (according to page 509 of her conference journal), while now it has shot up to $150,000 plus free housing, and she is thus in the top tenth of one percent of the richest people in the world.
Yet rather than fully acknowledge her extremely privileged status as a rich white American in the twenty-first century, let alone demonstrate some humility about the scary amount of power she is being given (for now) over congregations she unlovingly denounces as “bad,” Oliveto seemed more interested in using the atrocities of slavery primarily as a rhetorical prop for equating her plight with that of enslaved African Americans before the Civil War, on the basis of the fact that despite all of her wealth and privileges, there exists one denomination that teaches a higher standard of moral self-control than what she is personally willing to live by.
One may fairly ask why someone who appears so committed to closing her mind against being taught our church’s beliefs would insist on staying “enslaved” within the UMC.
She did declare at one point that “there are going to be babies who are going to be born to Methodists who are going to turn out to be queer” to suggest she was fighting on their behalf.
But we cannot ignore some factors of more direct self-interest. Someone asked her what advice she would offer to gay United Methodists who are considering ordination. In her response, among other things, Oliveto reported that many of her friends had gone into the extremely liberal United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination (which is much smaller than United Methodism), but then were unable to find congregations. And while she downplayed the extent of orthodoxy in the Mountain Sky Area, at one point she estimated that some 20 percent of Montana United Methodism would break in a traditionalist direction if there were a denominational split. Such instant losses would obviously be a significant blow to the finances of her remaining conference office.
But perhaps there is something deeper going on here than even the money and job security Oliveto currently gets from the UMC, and deeper than whatever propaganda plans she may have for pictures from her tour of the support Mountain Sky Methodists felt pressure to show for their Dear Leader.
Romans 2:15 teaches us that the moral law of God is written on the hearts of all people. Roman Catholics have developed an impressive body of thought about how even individuals who very openly reject God’s standards will nevertheless often feel internal attacks of conscience when they choose to violate them, and therefore find themselves unable to react calmly when other people simply remind them of the truth of which their own hearts are also telling them.
It is horrible to live in such an internally conflicted way.
What we see with Karen Oliveto is someone with such a passion for moral affirmation of her lifestyle that it is not enough for her to simply leave the church of her childhood affiliation (as plenty of others do all the time) to find a spiritual community that fully affirms her behavior. It is not enough that for her the leadership of the Western Jurisdiction has so effectively driven out orthodox United Methodists, as even four congregations (out of 386 total in the Mountain Sky Area!) disapproving of her morals is too much for her to bear. Oliveto’s passion in seeking affirmation, and in refusing to take a “live and let live” approach with churches and individuals who have different moral values than her own, quite evidently overrides any concern for or even willingness to acknowledge the great harm she is choosing to inflict on our global denomination.
But to the extent that Karen Oliveto is really ultimately seeking the affirmation of God for her refusal to submit to the very law He wrote on her heart, this quest will remain agonizingly futile.
UPDATE: By popular demand, I have embedded below an audio file of a lengthy excerpt of Dr. Oliveto’s “Public Theology” event that day. This segment includes her quote about the “bad churches” and her a bit later making ad hominem attacks of these congregations allegedly being less Methodist than herself, as well as several other key remarks noted above. I apologize for the audio quality not being clearer, but it is clear enough, with good headphones, in many places.