On November 16, the United Methodist Association of Retired Clergy (UMARC), held its second conference for laity and clergy on inclusiveness in the church, called Toward an Inclusive Church II. This unofficial caucus began a couple of years ago within the Mountain Sky Area with a primary focus on offering “unwavering support” to partnered lesbian activist Karen Oliveto’s contested claims to occupy the bishop’s office there. The progressive group convened in St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado to worship and listen to sermons and talks by Bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York and Dr. Karen Oliveto, among others.
In opening remarks, Rev. Mark Feldmeir of St. Andrew described the privilege he gets every Sunday of welcoming people from all walks of life, including “those who are both inclusive and radical in their welcoming as well as those who are evolving” (emphasis added), adding that his church every weekend receives those who are “on that journey of becoming more inclusive.” This echoed similar refrains from other progressive United Methodist groups that greatly prize converting United Methodists to full support of LGBTQ causes in the church.
Bishop Julius Trimble of the Indiana Episcopal Area sent in a video of support and made comments looking ahead to General Conference 2019. “I’m not leaving the church,” he confidently stated. He’s too busy making disciples of Christ, working on the church’s public mission, and praising Jesus, he said. Speaking on the Way Forward he said “the key word on the Commission is ‘forward’,” and this word is also key to the story of the whole Bible. He hopes that leading up to General Conference everyone remembers what they should be working towards: “Not backwards, not a way out, not a way to quit, not a way to claim winners or losers, not a way to start a new church or to reinvent a denomination but a way forward.”
Bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York gave a sermon at the conference’s start. He gave very high praise to “Bishop” Oliveto, remarking that he is awestruck by her current ministry. He even admiringly told her, “I can’t believe I’m standing on the turf where you preside as a bishop of the church.”
Bishop Bickerton’s sermon cited Paul’s words at the opening of Ephesians 4, where the apostle urges the church to be one united body with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is over all, through all, and in all. In line with the conference’s focus, the bishop spoke of a “sacrament of inclusion” and quoted Oliveto’s new book: “Our ability to have empathy strengthens our ability to love those who are not like us, even when we disagree.” After giving his sermon, UMARC honored Bishop Bickerton for his extensive work with Imagine No Malaria, a global health program of the UMC which seeks to save lives by helping provide bed nets, diagnostic tests, medicine, and health education in Africa.
In a session titled “Together at the Table,” which is the title of her new book, Oliveto spoke about why she wrote it, and answered many questions about the current state of the UMC, her experiences since her controversial election, and her perspective heading into the special General Conference in February.
Oliveto’s explanation for writing Together at the Table, her second book, was pretty simple; seeing the divide between conservatives and progressives in the UMC she “wanted to figure out how we could bridge the divide between us.”
She sees different perspectives on human sexuality as a matter of opinion, not absolute truths of theology: “We’ve taken an opinion on human sexuality and turned it into doctrine. And I think that’s a grave error… So why are we letting an opinion divide us? …How can we understand that unity doesn’t require uniformity? And part of what that informs that is how we understand God. We understand God to be three in one. God has built diversity into the very godhead, right?”
Without offering any evidence, Oliveto warned that the Traditional Plan would be a first step of a greater movement that would marginalize communities beyond the LGBT: “My biggest fear is if we move to the traditionalist model, that that’s only the first line in the sand. We haven’t learned our lessons. We’ve debated and we’ve gotten through one point, but we haven’t learned from the past.”
In her view, the Western Jurisdiction is already living out the “One Church Plan” and is proof that it works. “The local church already has people who disagree strongly but who love each other and are committed to mission together.” Her jurisdiction breaks the church’s rules “because God has brought people into our lives that have helped us change.” She did not mention how her election brought a “financial crisis” to her area, her heavy-handed intimidations of evangelicals, the Western Jurisdiction’s ruthless exclusion of traditionalist United Methodists, and how despite encompassing some areas of rapid population growth, the geographically huge Western Jurisdiction is losing members more rapidly than any of the UMC’s other U.S. jurisdictions.
A denominational split carries a lot more downside than staying together, she believes. For one, the only hope for our secular society is Jesus Christ, “And if we as the church of Jesus Christ can’t figure out a way to live together, what hope is there for the world?”
When asked what would change for their local churches if the “One Church Plan” (OCP), which she supports, passes, Oliveto insisted that “nothing has to happen.” She dismissed the potential pressure on pastors, saying that the plan would not require them to do gay weddings, and that clergy already have the option to refuse any wedding. She added that churches can decide how open they will be, what weddings they will allow, but that at a basic level they will not have to do anything. The OCP “simply gives breathing room for those places where we’re already living into a more inclusive church.”
That last line is illustrative of how Oliveto’s explanation is severely limited. The Western Jurisdiction, including the Mountain Sky Area that Oliveto oversees, is composed overwhelmingly of progressive congregations, pastors, and lay people. As the “bishop” explained minutes before, this region is already going against the United Methodist Church’s teaching and rules on human sexuality as they apply to ordination, marriages, and more. Because the OCP would legitimize most of their disobedience and unfaithfulness, no difficult conversation may be necessary after February in the churches of the UMARC participants. However, this will not be the case for most United Methodists and their local churches. The Western Jurisdiction, after all, is home to less than 3% of the UMC’s members.
When one questioner brought up the Simple Plan, Oliveto expressed mixed approval for the plan put out by the “Queer Clergy Caucus.” This plan would move the UMC in a similar direction as the OCP, but would also roll back UMC’s teachings and policies against adultery and pre-marital sex, and would not make any pretense of protecting the consciences of traditionalist clergy and congregations. Oliveto observed of the Simple Plan: “
It doesn’t quite have the softer language [of the OCP]. I also think, I’m going to be honest, they also removed language about fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, and I think then it turns it into a moral document. And I think it will not get the votes it needs because of that. That’s my interpretation. I think otherwise, it was great. If they left that in there it would be a stronger petition. The One Church leaves that in there.
When asked for her reaction to recent news that the California-Nevada Conference and Bishop Minerva Carcaño have sued the Glide Foundation board of trustees for control of the Glide United Methodist “church,” Oliveto, previously pastor there, said she was stunned and saddened. Glide, which calls itself “a social justice movement, social service provider and spiritual community,” has been the subject of controversy in recent years. Oliveto said she has kept her nose out of the situation and does not know the details of the story, despite her long history there. She expressed very strong support for the San Francisco-based institution, stating that Glide is what made her a good bishop because of the lessons she learned there, particularly by serving the needy and marginalized. Oliveto spoke extensively about her time there, relaying statistics and stories of Glide’s sizeable social programs, but did not ever mention sharing the Gospel or developing disciples of Jesus Christ.
The “bishop” also gave a sermon to close the conference. She told the story of a California town known for its disproportionately high number of graveyards, to discuss how nowadays she sees “dead” people everywhere because of the way the UMC treats LGBT persons and debates issues surrounding human sexuality.
The closets that LGBT people are forced into are like tombs, she said, creating in them a deadness even though they are physically alive. Not only are these people dead, but so are those who are not LGBT-affirming: “I see dead people every time I go to General Conference, minds closed to the latest knowledge of homosexuality, found not only in social and medical sciences, but also through critical engagement with sacred texts and traditions of Christianity.” She went on to offer a curious reinterpretation of Jesus Christ’s raising Lazarus from the dead: “Jesus stands at our closet tombs and calls us to come out but he doesn’t stop there. You’ll recall that Lazarus, when he arose from the tomb, Jesus then turns to the community, and tells them ‘Unbind him,’ let him go. Lazarus can be released from death’s chains only if those around him free him from his bonds, and the same is true of us.”
In summary, progressive bishops and their allies continue to evangelize for the “One Church Plan” and continue to give limited, misleading explanations on how it will affect the United Methodist Church. Amidst this, there are two truths spoken at the conference that we should hold on to. First, that Jesus Christ is the only hope for this world and that our witness as a church that follows Him matters immensely. Secondly, theological traditionalists as well as revisionists in the UMC need to develop and show through their actions greater empathy for one another, despite all the challenges.