March 23, 2017

July 16, 2016

Liberals to United Methodist Church: Drop Dead (THIRD UPDATE)

The United Methodist Church in the western United States is dying. The Western Jurisdiction (which encompasses all U.S. states west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona) is in a terminal death spiral, having lost well more than half its membership and worship attendance over the last half century, and is no longer self-supporting financially. The most liberal portion of the world-wide denomination, it has apparently decided to give a big middle finger to the rest of the church before it croaks.

Holding its quadrennial meeting in Arizona this week to elect a new bishop, it’s choice is the pastor of Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco, the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto. Dr. Oliveto now holds the distinction of being the United Methodist Church’s first lesbian bishop–the UMC’s very own Gene Robinson, as it were. The director of one of the biggest gay advocacy groups in the UMC writes:

Reconciling Ministries Network celebrates with great joy the election of the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church (The UMC). This is an historic moment in the movement of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) persons for spiritual and civil equality both in the church and the public square. The election of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA breaks through anti-LGBTQ law in The UMC and carries queer people to the highest levels of church leadership. Officially barred from so many churches and positions of spiritual leadership, queer persons may now see themselves as leaders of the body of Christ in the largest mainline protestant denomination in the United States.

Yes, well. There’s at least one problem with that: sexually active gays (Oliveto is “married”) are barred from ordination as ministers, much less bishops, in the UMC. Another problem is that the College of Bishops just got through persuading the General Conference to leave things unchanged in the Book of Discipline, rather than doing anything to strengthen the prohibition, pending the outcome of yet another study commission. The Western Jurisdiction has spit in the face of the world-wide church with its actions, apparently counting on the change in the facts on the ground to ensure that the denomination–which is predominantly conservative and evangelical world-wide–will simply accept the new reality.

Even before the meeting, there were those who warned that electing Oliveto (or either of the other two gay candidates) wouldn’t be greeted warmly:

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said he would like to see conferences and individuals honor the legislation approved by General Conference.

The General Conference essentially “hit the pause button,” Ough said. “Personally, I would like to see people and conferences honor that.”

“It is regrettable that we have reached the point of such open defiance of the decisions made in good faith by our global United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, executive with Good News, an evangelical United Methodist organization that upholds the church’s current stance on homosexuality issues.

“The disrespect shown to our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Europe, not to mention United Methodist evangelicals in the U.S., is staggering.

“To elect a self-avowed practicing homosexual as bishop would push many traditionalists over the edge of what they could tolerate, jeopardizing the unity and the funding of the denomination,” Lambrecht said.

The Rev. William Lawrence — former president of the Judicial Council, the church’s top court — said that if an openly gay person were elected bishop, anyone in the denomination could file a complaint. Some evidence, such as a wedding license, would be needed to merit processing of the complaint, he added.

For her part, Oliveto said in prospect that she supported hitting the pause button, just not at the cost of refusing to elect a gay bishop:

“I am very supportive of the Bishop’s Way Forward (General Conference 2016 legislative plan),” said Oliveto. “I believe that what this commission will discover is that while matters of human sexuality are the symptom, the dis-ease within our denomination is cultural and theological and it is impacting our ability to create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Unfortunately, LGBTQ persons have paid a harsh price for our neglect in speaking the truth about our denomination.”

I think it’s fair to say that schism is now inevitable in the UMC. The only question is how to manage it.

UPDATE: John Lomperis of the Institute on Religion and Democracy posted a picture of Dr. Oliveto from 2015 in which she was apparently taking a courageous stand in favor of people who, if they had their way, would see her dead:

John also has some fascinating tidbits regarding the new bishop’s “theology” that some Anglicans might find eerily familiar, including this:

In her sermon during the closing worship, she criticized St. Paul for casting a demon out of the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18. Oliveto encouraged her audience to question the traditional interpretation that this exorcism was “an act of liberation” for the girl. Negatively comparing Paul’s response to the slave girl to his subsequent saving of the jailer, Oliveto asserted that Paul was not motivated by compassion for the slave girl and noted that the text does not say that she found salvation.

The RMN leader went on to defend the demon’s possession of the slave, as this demon helped enrich her owners by giving her fortune-telling abilities. Oliveto declared that by casting the demon out of the girl, Paul did nothing to make the girl’s life better and “probably made it worse” as she was now “damaged goods.” Oliveto was very concerned by “questions about the imposition of religious values, in this case religious values,” such as if the exorcism was really good for the slave girl and whether she wanted to be exorcised. However, she did not explore the possibility of demon possession having had any detrimental effect upon the girl.

UPDATE: The president of the College of Bishops has put out the following statement:

The Western Jurisdiction has elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco to serve as a bishop of The United Methodist Church. Rev. Oliveto has been described as “an openly lesbian clergyperson.” This election raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity.

Our Book of Discipline has clearly delineated processes in place for resolving issues even as complex and unprecedented as this election.

The authority to elect bishops is constitutionally reserved to the jurisdictional and central conferences. Any elder in good standing is eligible for election as a bishop of the church. An elder under an unresolved complaint is still considered to be in good standing. Being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual is a chargeable offense for any clergyperson in The United Methodist Church, if indeed this is the case.

The Council of Bishops is monitoring this situation very closely. The Council does not have constitutional authority to intervene in the election or supervisory processes at either the annual conference, jurisdictional or central conference levels. And, we are careful to not jeopardize any clergy or lay person’s due process by ill-advised comments.

However, we clearly understand the Church appropriately expects the Council to provide spiritual leadership and for bishops to uphold our consecration vows. In May, prior to General Conference, the Council again affirmed to keep the promises made at our consecrations, including, among others:

•Shepherding all persons committed to our care;
•Leading the church in mission, witness and service;
•Ordering the church including administering processes for handling complaints;
•Seeking unity in Christ, including the work the Council proposed to the General Conference in “An Offering for a Way Forward.”

There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church. Others will no doubt have questions as we find ourselves in a place where we have never been. Still, others will likely see this election as disrupting or even rendering moot the purpose and work of the Commission currently being formed by the Council.

The Council continues to place our hope in Jesus Christ. Though conflicted and fragile, The United Methodist Church remains a strong witness to the transforming love of God and the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements. We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.

As a Council, we continue to maintain that the proposal for a way forward and the formation of the Commission is the best path. An endless cycle of actions, reactions and counter-reactions is not a viable path and tears at the very fabric of our Connection. The current and incoming COB Executive Committees recently met by conference call to initiate the implementation of our Offering for a Way Forward and the formation of the Commission called for in the proposal. We will resume this work at our regularly scheduled meeting on July 19-20 following the Jurisdictional Conferences. A progress report will be released shortly after the meeting.

Our differences are real and cannot be glossed over, but they are also reconcilable. We are confident God is with us, especially in uncharted times and places. There is a future with hope. We invite your constant and ardent prayers for the witness and unity of The United Methodist Church. May God guide us as we seek to maintain unity in the bond of peace.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President
Council of Bishops

Translation: We don’t like it, but as of now can’t–or won’t–do anything about it. A little help here?

(Via Anglican Ink.)

UPDATE: According to Mark Tooley of the IRD, this election is going to be challenged in the denomination’s highest court. The South Central Jurisdiction, meeting in Wichita, responded to Oliveto’s election by passing a motion to refer to the Judicial Council this question: “Is the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage lawful under The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church?” Mark has further details, though not when the next meeting of the Judicial Council will be.

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It’s been obvious to me for eons that the US UMC was as heretical as TEC and that actions like this were inevitable.  Yet I’ve been taken to task by my “betters” that insisted that the African faction would keep the UMC within the bounds of Scripture.

All the US UMC has to do is declare that they are far too prophetic to be constrained by bigoted Africans (wrap your mind around that).  It’s what Protestants do - they splinter.

[1] Posted by Nikolaus on 7-16-2016 at 11:02 AM · [top]

Thanks for the update.  I just saw that myself and was returning here to draw attention to it.

[2] Posted by Nikolaus on 7-16-2016 at 12:15 PM · [top]

The national church will not be able to do anything about Oliveto’s election.  The jurisdictions are responsible for bishop accountability, just like conferences are responsible for elder accountability.  The latest buzz word is “just resolution” instead of clergy trials.  In the case of a pastor performing a same sex wedding in Virginia recently, the just resolution was a month’s suspension without pay.  Reconciling Ministries Network publicly announced they would pick up the pay for the month’s suspension, so de facto there were no consequences for the action.

Orthodox Methodists have just formed the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which seems modeled after the PCUSA ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  It started out in PCUSA but soon split off to form a separate group.  The sad part for orthodox UMC members is that the property trust clauses in the UMC are stronger and much older than the Dennis canon, so I doubt that any UMC congregations will have any luck in court trying to leave and keep their property.  I like to think of the UMC these days as more of Obama’s Reichskirche than an actual Christian church, although there are a minority of UMC clergy who are still Christian, and probably a majority of laity who are.

[3] Posted by Daniel on 7-16-2016 at 04:11 PM · [top]

I attended the baptism of a friend’s child at a UMC church back in the early ‘80s.  They had already switched to the “Mother/Father God” prayers, and were wiping the prayers and liturgy clean of the language and attitudes of the obviously bigoted and misogynistic national, traditional church.  Needless to say, I never went back, but I was so sad - even back then - for my friend and her husband and their child, who were buying a pig in a poke.

[4] Posted by GillianC on 7-16-2016 at 07:29 PM · [top]

Ah, yes, the Methodists…  here we go again.

I used to be a Methodist for a few years, attending a Methodist church in college (in a “conservative” part of the country) and then again some years later (at the same church when I moved back to the same town for a time).  I also did some contract work at a United Methodist seminary (in a very liberal East Coast city).  What I remember most were people who were very nice, and wanted to help others, but who also seemed to think they had no needs or problems of their own.  They liked Jesus, but I feel looking back they generally felt no need for Him.  You might say this is a perfect environment for “social justice” to develop in?  While there are pockets of faithful Christians and healthy churches in the UMC (in some surprising places at times), at best, I could say my personal experience with the UMC was of lukewarm Christianity and at worst very nice apostasy.

Anyway, I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine shared several years ago with me.  He and his wife were happily taking their young family to a large First UMC in a large Southwestern city.  They loved the interest in missions and helping others that the church exhibited.  They were also both theologically sound and assumed the church was too.

One weekend, my friend and his wife signed up for a marriage enrichment seminar - just to work on the skills to make their marriage work better.  IIRC, they showed up with seven other couples for the seminar.

My friend and his wife were the only heterosexual couple there.

They were just floored.  In short order they decamped from the UMC and found another church (at first an LCMS congregation, and then later PCA) to raise their family in.

[5] Posted by Reformed Wanderer on 7-16-2016 at 09:16 PM · [top]

I think that it is fairly obvious that the Judicial Council will find the election of a person “who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” as bishop to have been unlawful.  This prediction is not based upon a judgment that the Judicial Council members feel that the Discipline statements are theologically appropriate.  Rather, it is based upon the judgment that the Judicial Council members understand that, if they appear to permit clear “prophetic” violations of the plain language in the Discipline, there will soon be no reason to have a Judicial Council.  The real question, in my mind, is what will happen when the Western Jurisdiction decides to defy the Judicial Council.  A Judicial Council ruling is no more binding than the language of the Discipline.  Therefore, if the Western Jurisdiction is willing to “prophetically” defy the language of the Discipline, there is no reason not to defy the Judicial Council. That will be an extremely schismatic action.

[6] Posted by ABQ Methodist on 7-17-2016 at 03:15 PM · [top]

In light of your statement ABQ…it is my understanding that Methodist rules about physical assets are better drafted than the Denis Canon ( which some claim wasn’t actually duly passed but ‘snuck’ in).  Do individual congregations belong to the national denomination or to their regional Jurisdiction?  Will a single church or group of local churches have any protection from the greater UMC from a renegade Jurisdiction?

[7] Posted by Nikolaus on 7-17-2016 at 06:04 PM · [top]

Hey David, in answer to your question: the next scheduled meeting of the Judicial Council is in October. It is possible for them to meet before then. At the latest, they will meet in October and issue a ruling within six months. At the earliest, they all get on Skype and issue a ruling within a couple of weeks.

There are several ways this could be handled, but one possibility is instructing the Western Jurisdiction to within 60 days remove Oliveto and elect a replacement, or have the entire Jurisdiction declared “outside the bounds of the Discipline”—and immediately cut off from denominational funding. Since the Western Jurisdiction does not self-fund the entirety of its bishops’ salaries, the effect would be immediate.

[8] Posted by Jeff Walton on 7-18-2016 at 09:04 AM · [top]

Thanks for the information, Jeff. As usual, follow the money is the way to know what is likely to happen. I wonder if Western bishops would be willing to take salary cuts to be “prophetic”?

[9] Posted by David Fischler on 7-18-2016 at 10:12 AM · [top]

In answer to your question, under the trust clause, the individual assets of a United Methodist Church congregation belong the the Annual Conference (roughly equivalent to a TEC diocese). The United Methodist trust clause is on a firmer foundation than the Dennis Cannon and the United Methodist Church has a better case for claiming to be hierarchical than TEC.  As in TEC, the bishops have the executive authority within their Episcopal sees; but they are subject to church law through the Judicial Council.  Therefore, it is the individual bishops who have the most authority over and impact on the local congregations.  The main effect of the Jurisdiction is the selection and assignment of bishops.  (Unlike TEC bishops, UMC bishops are selected for four year terms within a single see and typically serve two such terms.)  The Jurisdictions themselves have very small staffs and hold conferences once every four years to elect and assign bishops.  The delegates to Jurisdictional Conferences, like the delegates to General Conference, are elected from clergy and laity every four years by their Annual Conferences.  From what I have seen of the politics, most of the Annual Conferences (and probably churches) in the Western Jurisdiction have signaled approval of the election of self-avowed practicing homosexual (or transsexual) bishops.  Local churches outside the Western Jurisdiction are not directly affected, as bishops serve within the Jurisdiction in which they are elected.  From all appearances the South and South Central Jurisdictions do not approve of the actions of the Western Jurisdiction.  Indeed, our South Central Jurisdiction approved a request for a Judicial Council declaratory judgement on the lawfulness of the Western Jurisdictional action before the Jurisdictional Conference adjourned. 
Jeff Walton’s suggestion is intriguing; but it is not apparent who could order the General Council on Finance and Administration to cut off funding and whether the GCFA would obey such an order.  I suppose the Judicial Council could order such action. However, it would probably do so only in response to Western Jurisdiction defiance of a judgement finding the bishop election to be unlawful.  Given the divisions in the American portion of the church, it would probably take years for the Judicial process to get to that point, if the Judicial Council went there at all.  I suspect that this is more likely to give impetus to proposals to reorganize the UMC eliminating the Western Jurisdiction at the 2020 General Conference.

[10] Posted by ABQ Methodist on 7-18-2016 at 11:56 AM · [top]

I’m just going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that the New England Conference of the UMC will whole-heartedly support the Western Jurisdiction in their choice of bishop.

[11] Posted by The Little Myrmidon on 7-19-2016 at 08:20 AM · [top]

That’s one limb that I doubt seriously will get sawed off in back of you, LM.

[12] Posted by David Fischler on 7-19-2016 at 11:52 AM · [top]

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