Much confusion and conflicting rhetoric remains concerning the recent ruling of the United Methodist Church’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, on the case of the attempt to make lesbian activist Karen Oliveto a United Methodist bishop.
In the big picture, it is important to understand that in Decision #1341 (widely known as “the Oliveto case”) the Judicial Council rather dramatically and fundamentally reshaped the landscape of our church law, by now making clear that openly homosexually partnered individuals cannot be ordained or made bishop in our denomination.
And the Judicial Council did so WITHOUT any sort “legislating from the bench,” but rather by simply clarifying the widely understood, plain-sense meaning of key words and phrases in the UMC Discipline and thus closing some key supposed loopholes in church law that those undermining our denominational covenant have been exploiting for years. The only people I see claiming the Judicial Council’s ruling was instead any sort of “judicial activism” are folk who argued, as some of Oliveto’s supporters have actually done, that it can be perfectly honoring of the Discipline’s ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy to allow clergy to be in legally affirmed “same-sex marriages.” In other words, most accusations of the Judicial Council allegedly over-stepping its bounds are of one piece with rather specious, transparently insincere arguments that do not deserve to be taken seriously.
Here’s how the Council did this.
As I explained in a preview of the Judicial Council’s spring session, this case involved three basic steps:
- First, determining whether or not the Judicial Council had jurisdiction (proper authority) to rule directly on the church law questions, based on the particular circumstances of how this case was brought to the Judicial Council;
- Second, addressing the actual questions of church law and ruling in a general way that would apply to all relevant circumstances, even apart from the specific case of Dr. Oliveto; and
- Third, determining what remedy, if any, to bring for the specific case of Dr. Oliveto.
On the first step, the Judicial Council (by a 7-2 majority) determined that it did indeed have jurisdiction to rule on the core of the matters brought before them in this case.
On the third step, the Judicial Council neither removed Dr. Oliveto from office (as I and others had urged) nor simply left her standing alone (as her supporters had urged), but rather mandated that she be subjected to a review process to determine her guilt or innocence and then face appropriate consequences after the facts have been determined.
It is on the second step, in its general ruling on basic matters of our church law on sexual morality, that the Judicial Council’s ruling was most important.
It is essential to understand the wider context: For decades, traditionalist United Methodists have worked very hard to make clear in our denomination’s church law that openly homosexually active individuals, and others involved in unrepentant sexual immorality, cannot become (or if already ordained, remain) United Methodist clergy. This struggle has involved hard-fought efforts to make multiple key changes to different parts of our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline and other church-law efforts in between General Conferences. Finally, by 2004, we had brought church law to the point of stating clearly that because of our church’s strong belief that “[t]he practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” being found to be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” was sufficient grounds for denying someone ordination or removing them from ministry.
But the catch was that the main, and in some cases the only, way to prove that someone was a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” was if s/he explicitly confessed to church officials to being regularly engaged in “genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender,” as outlined in a key Judicial Council decision (#920) for how exactly this church-law standard was to be applied. And several liberal church officials treated this as a HUGE loophole, so that as long as relevant church officials avoided asking awkward questions about clergy’s “genital sexual activity” or openly gay—even openly gay and partnered—clergy refused to answer such questions, they would continue as United Methodist ministers.
Some liberal activists seemed to pursue a rather hypocritical strategy of, on the one hand, insisting that the only way clergy could be found guilty of “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” was if they explicitly confessed to having “genital contact” with someone of the same sex, while on the other hand resorting to old-fashioned shaming tactics to try to make any faithful church leaders look like voyeuristic perverts if they dared to actually ask gay clergy in such review processes the direct questions about their genitals that needed to be asked if the Discipline was to be enforced.
I brought some this history to the Judicial Council’s attention in the second “friend of the court” brief I submitted on this case. My earlier first brief submitted on this case had made a more positive argument for applying the plain-sense and widely understood meanings of “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
So for many years, liberal United Methodist bishops in a few areas, especially the numerically tiny U.S. Western Jurisdiction, have been ordaining and effectively preventing any accountability for openly gay clergy who were unwilling to commit to biblical standards for sexual self-control. The move last summer by the Western Jurisdiction to elect openly partnered lesbian activist Karen Oliveto as bishop grew out of this much more widespread problem in that region. Dr. Oliveto has a well-documented history of radicalism, from promoting America’s largest abortion provider to rebuking some of Jesus Christ’s own red-letter teachings to arguing that Paul was wrong to cast a demon out of a slave girl (as reported in Acts 16) to unlovingly demonizing what she has called “the bad churches” who have been unhappy to have her imposed as their bishop, for now.
Thanks to a motion made by delegate and UMAction Steering Committee member Dixie Brewster, the 2016 South Central Jurisdiction voted to respond to Dr. Oliveto’s election by asking the Judicial Council to rule on several basic questions related to minimum standards for bishops and other clergy.
In a complex, closely watched ruling, the Judicial Council brought us a new day of clarity for our biblical ordination standards. It rejected laughable arguments presented and unanimously endorsed by the active and retired bishops of the Western Jurisdiction that the UMC Discipline’s aforementioned language about “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” did not forbid clergy from being in same-sex “marriages.” Instead, our top church court basically closed this major loophole of enforcement depending on explicitly confessed “genital sexual activity.” This ruling now offers two alternative ways clergy can be found guilty of violating this biblical standard of our denomination, with no need for awkward direct questions about genitals. If a United Methodist minister is found to be in a legal same-sex “marriage,” that is enough to prove that s/he is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and so cannot be ordained, appointed, or made bishop—unless s/he can somehow prove that this is a sexless “marriage.” Alternatively, the Council ruled more sweepingly that “a partnered homosexual clergy person … does not meet the minimum standards” for UMC clergy (regardless of whether or not anyone calls this partnership a “marriage”), and so should face accountability.
Significantly, not one of the nine issued a dissent from this key part of the ruling. Perhaps Judicial Council member Beth Capen of New York would have done so, but for some reason she arrived late to the Judicial Council’s session, missed the oral arguments, and so for this case was replaced by first lay alternate Warren Plowden of South Georgia. The dissent of the two who thought the majority’s opinion went too far (Ms. Deanell Reece Tacha and Mr. N. Oswald Tweh) only challenged the majority on the first-step questions of jurisdiction. I see no reason to believe that Tacha and Tweh would not have joined the majority on the actual second-step questions noted above if these same questions had been brought to the Judicial Council in different circumstances.
As expected, the Judicial Council did not immediately remove Oliveto from the bishop’s office without any sort of further process to review the facts. (Although it is worth noting that my briefs had argued for the Judicial Council to immediately nullify Oliveto’s election, and two of the nine Judicial Council members issued separate opinions indicating their willingness to do this). Because of the strongly established precedents in our church law for protecting the rights of the accused, processes which also protect faithful clergy from mistreatment by liberal bishops, the Judicial Council instead called for a review of Karen Oliveto’s standing within the Western Jurisdiction. But the Council made clear that she MUST be subjected to this accountability process, and that this process finding that she is indeed living in a homosexual relationship (as she already publicly admits) would make her guilty of betraying the minimum standards for UMC clergy, let alone bishop.
In two separate cases, the Judicial Council ruled that boards of ordained ministry (the groups in every annual conference that screen ordination candidates), must “conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation” of ordination candidates to determine their commitment to abstaining from homosexuality or other non-marital sexual activity, that this can include “reading social media postings of candidates,” and that these boards may not ignore any statements they find of candidates “who avowed their homosexuality” or otherwise admitted to “any action that violates any portion of church law.” These two rulings effectively nullify and replace the statements recently adopted within the New York, Northern Illinois, and other liberal conferences to openly welcome gay ordination candidates.
These landmark rulings are binding on the whole denomination. It would be hard to overstate how major they are for strengthening our denomination’s standards and mechanisms for keeping clergy accountable to biblical standards for sexual self-control.
In the months ahead, UMAction is committed to doing the long, hard work of ensuring that these standards are followed and enforced.