Even before Bishop Karen Oliveto takes office, her election as The United Methodist Church’s first openly gay bishop has prompted reactions from her episcopal colleagues.
A number of U.S. bishops sent pastoral letters to United Methodists in their areas in response. Many raise concerns that Oliveto’s election in the western United States violates the denomination’s ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Most counsel patience as the church waits for its top court, the Judicial Council, to rule on questions raised by the election of a married lesbian.
Some bishops outside the United States told United Methodist News Service that they worry Oliveto remaining a bishop will put their ministry at risk, particularly in nations where same-sex activity faces legal barriers.
All bishops call for prayers for the multinational denomination, where members have varied views on biblical interpretation and how the church should best minister with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals.
“The election in the Western Jurisdiction moves our church into a new time in history and into uncharted waters,” wrote Florida Area Bishop Kenneth Carter, president-designate of the Council of Bishops, in a letter to his area.
“In our denomination there are deeply divergent conceptions of grace, holiness and what it means to be in connection. This is the work to be done.”
Meanwhile, Oliveto already faces multiple complaints under church law, said Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, the president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops. Hagiya as the college president is the first stop for any complaints against the Western Jurisdiction’s bishops. He told United Methodist News Service that he has initiated the church’s supervisory process that seeks to reach a resolution without trial.
Hagiya, for his part, told UMNS he believes delegates elected Oliveto because she “was simply the best candidate” in the jurisdiction. She most recently was senior pastor of the large Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
“The delegates elected based on qualifications, not human sexuality,” he said.
Oliveto, in a letter to the Western Jurisdiction written shortly after her consecration, acknowledged that many “are lamenting” her elevation as bishop.
Like all newly elected U.S. bishops, she takes office Sept. 1. She will lead the Mountain Sky Area, which encompasses Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and two churches in Idaho.
“Our task is to love deeply,” she said, “which means standing before those who are angry, anxious or fearful and be a witness to all they are feeling, and to remain in relationship through the power of Christ’s love.”
Voices of Bishops
Bishops of varied theological perspectives have written pastoral letters to address concerns following Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election.
In alphabetical order, the bishops include:
- Florida Area Bishop Kenneth Carter
- Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.
- Wisconsin Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
- Arkansas Area Bishop Gary Mueller
- Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce Ough,Council of Bishops president
- Bishop Karen Oliveto
- Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky
- Mississippi Area Bishop James Swanson
- Holston Area Bishop Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of policies, since 1972 has asserted that all people are of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since 2004, the book has listed “not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” and “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” as chargeable offenses under church law.
The South Central Jurisdiction, also meeting when Oliveto was elected, voted to request the Judicial Council to review questions of law related to her election.
The Judicial Council, faced with other legal questions around homosexuality at its October meeting, announced it would not take up the South Central Jurisdiction’s request until its spring 2017 meeting.
That means the first Council of Bishops meeting with newly elected bishops will take place before any council ruling. The bishops will meet Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan, who leads the Manila Area in the Philippines, said he plans to treat Oliveto with civility.
“But this does not mean that I approve the situation,” he told UMNS. “Acceptance is different from approval!”
Juan said Oliveto’s widely publicized election could harm United Methodist ministry in the Philippines. “Our culture, being conservative, does not approve same-sex marriage and ordination of gays,” he said. He worries conservative church members will leave if the church changes its policies related to LGBTQ in a way that extends to the Philippines.
Eurasia Area Bishop Eduard Khegay told UMNS it would be “impossible” for him to receive Oliveto as a fellow bishop. His area stretches across 11 time zones of Eastern Europe and the whole of Russia. In 2013, Russia’s parliament passed a law banning anything authorities identify as gay propaganda.
“I do not see this election in accordance with the Book of Discipline,” he said. “This reminds me of the communist time in Soviet Union when we had ‘selective justice,’ which means the law is applied selectively: Some people should follow the law, but others at the top can ignore it.”
Still other bishops have welcomed Oliveto.
“I do not see the election of Karen Oliveto as a bad thing, but as a natural part of our growth and development. Our process is to trust human beings to elect episcopal leaders,” said Wisconsin Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung said in a letter to his area. “We believe that God and the Holy Spirit are active in our processes. How can we say of one candidate who is elected that this is the will of God, then deny it is God’s will of another?”
Looking to commission
Even as they wait for a Judicial Council ruling, bishops are forming the new Commission on a Way Forward to examine matters of human sexuality and church unity.
A number of bishops are asking United Methodists to pray for this work aimed at heading off a possible schism.
So far, 84 active and retired bishops have volunteered to pray 15 minutes a day until mid-November for the work of the commission.
Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa encourages church members to focus more on the commission’s broader work rather than the election of one bishop.
“If you isolate one aspect, I think we’ll begin to deal with symptoms rather than look at the whole picture,” he said.
Ultimately, any changes the commission recommends will need approval from General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. in a letter urged United Methodists to remember “that God is with us even in the midst of our deep divisions.”
“God will guide and direct us as we earnestly seek God’s will for God’s church going forward,” he wrote.
Oliveto made a similar point in her letter to the Western Jurisdiction.
“The best of our United Methodist tradition is when we can hold the tension of our differences for the sake of our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” she said. “God has called us for such a time as this.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Tafadzwa Mudambanuki is senior manager, central conference relations for United Methodist Communications, and Kathy L. Gilbert, UMNS reporter, also contributed to the story.