The Western Jurisdiction’s five active bishops promised to provide “a safe harbor” for LGBTQ clergy, despite new church restrictions set to take effect Jan. 1.
“We intend to provide safe harbor for clergy under our care who may be at risk under the new provisions, prohibitions and punishments,” the bishops jointly announced at the conclusion of the Council of Bishops meeting Nov. 6.
The Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses seven conferences in the westernmost United States, has long stood in opposition to denominational restrictions related to LGBTQ individuals.
However, bishops said they see a pressing need to speak up now.
“We make this statement out of a position of conscience with the clear affirmation that we don’t think the church has the authority or the power to limit the way God works in people’s lives,” said Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky. She leads the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest conferences.
“The church’s job is to recognize how God works in people’s lives, and we’re bearing testimony to the fact that in the world that we minister in we have come to be siblings in a deep and genuine way with LGBTQ people who minister with us. We know the fruits of the Spirit in their lives.”
Bishop Karen Oliveto, the denomination’s first openly gay bishop, is among those who joined in the declaration. The jurisdiction elected her in 2016, and she leads the Mountain Sky Conference, which covers Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and one church in Idaho.
“We are looking to see who possesses the gifts and graces for ministry,” Oliveto said. “What we are saying is sexual orientation alone is not a bar to serving God.”
Nor should it be a bar to marriage, Stanovsky added. “When two adults find life-giving love together, for the church to withhold blessing from that is a sorry state.”
The bishops released their statement ahead of the Western Jurisdiction’s Fresh United Methodism Summit on Nov. 14-16.
“This really is a part of what the summit is all about: To declare where we are and get consensus around that through the jurisdiction,” Bishop Grant Hagiya said. He leads the California-Pacific Conference that includes southern California, Hawaii and the Pacific islands of Guam and Saipan.
Both the bishops’ pledge and the summit respond to the Traditional Plan, which the special General Conference adopted by a vote of 438 to 384 in February.
The legislation maintains the church stance, which dates to 1972, that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also retains bans on officiating at same-sex weddings and being “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy — both chargeable offenses under church law since 2004.
The new legislation aims to tighten enforcement and includes:
- A more specific definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” to say that it includes people “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.”
- A ban on bishops consecrating gay bishops elected by a jurisdictional or central conference.
- Prohibitions on the recommendation or approval of clergy candidates who do not meet clergy qualifications, including those related to homosexuality.
- A requirement that bishops rule any unqualified candidate out of order even if approved by the clergy session.
- A requirement of greater involvement of anyone filing a complaint against clergy in that complaint’s resolution.
- The requirement that bishops only dismiss a complaint against clergy if it has “no basis in law or fact” and that they share those reasons with the complainant.
- A minimum penalty for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding — one year’s suspension without pay for the first offense and loss of credentials for the second. This is the only mandatory penalty under church law.
The new legislation goes into effect Jan. 1 in the U.S. and a year after the 2020 General Conference in church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
In their statement, the bishops said they would approach the church’s processes differently.
“We do not intend to withhold or challenge ordination based solely on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation,” the declaration said. “We are unwilling to punish clergy who celebrate the marriage of two adults of any gender or sexual orientation seeking the blessing of God and the church for their covenanted life together.”
At the same time, the bishops also pledged to “uphold the requirement that LGBTQ+ clergy, with all clergy, ‘maintain the highest standards of holy living’ in their personal and professional relationships.”
Bishops play a key role in handling complaints against clergy in their conferences.
Hagiya said he and his Western Jurisdiction colleagues have discussed how they will respond to LGBTQ-related complaints.
“We will have individual responses that differ from each other,” Hagiya said. “But I think the general thing is: Let us take it to a relational basis. Can we go to the complainant to talk to them personally about the dynamics of why they are doing this and our response?”
Hagiya added that the bishops hope to make all feel welcomed, including those who identify as traditionalists and disagree with the bishops’ biblical interpretation.
Bishops Robert T. Hoshibata of the Desert-Southwest Conference and Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Conference were unable to attend the gathering where their colleagues introduced their declaration.
Carcaño later told UM News that as a bishop, she needed to take another step in her conference’s long commitment to inclusion because so many are concerned about the Traditional Plan’s implementation.
The Rev. Austin Adkinson, convener of the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus and elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference, is among those who are worried. He called the bishops’ statement heartening.
“Queer clergy and our congregations are on pins and needles as we await the Jan. 1 implementation of the punitive and discriminatory acts of General Conference,” he said.
He thanked the Western Jurisdiction bishops and urged them and other bishops who sign on to be clear about how they plan “to protect LGBTQIA+ clergy in their conferences and beyond.”
Bottom line: The bishops say they have every desire to remain part of The United Methodist Church.
“None of us is tempted to say we’re out of here,” Stanovsky said. “We are in the fiber of our being United Methodist — every one of us. … We believe that this is an absolutely faithful way to be United Methodist in this extraordinary moment.”
Oliveto said her wish is that the declaration provides hope.
“I hope that by what we’re doing young people will be able to say there’s hope, and there’s still a place for me not only in this church but in the body of Christ.”