The first time she stood and faced a packed church as the newest bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Karen Phyllis Oliveto was blessed with a resounding standing ovation.
On July 16, the pews at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church were filled with family, friends and supporters who cheered and danced with her to the recessional hymn, “Somos el Cuerpo de Christo, We Are the Body of Christ.”
As the first out lesbian to be elected a bishop, she is not receiving the same affirmation from across the denomination.
Her day started with a press conference where she and Greater Northwest Episcopal Area Bishop Grant Hagiya answered questions about what her election as bishop means, since the denomination forbids ordaining practicing, self-avowed homosexuals. Oliveto has been legally married to Robin Ridenour for more than two years, and they have been in a relationship since they met at a junior-high camp as counselors 17 years ago.
Hagiya said the election of Oliveto was led by the Holy Spirit.
“We understand there may be some political implications, but in our mind this was the best person. It was not a question of (sexual) orientation, it was a question of who was the best spiritual leader. The body spoke and said ‘Yes, this is the one.’ ”
He added this election will not derail the General Conference 2016’s decision to support the Council of Bishops' plan to appoint a special commission that would address all aspects of human sexuality currently covered in church law. General Conference is the top lawmaking body of the church.
On the heels of her election, members of the South Central Jurisdiction voted 109-84 late on July 15 to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding gay and lesbian church leaders. The Judicial Council is the denomination's supreme court.
In a July 16 phone interview, Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, agreed with Hagiya that Oliveto’s election does not negate the commission’s purpose.
What might happen now?
The United Methodist Council of Bishops will meet July 19-20 in Chicago and will discuss “A Way Forward,” a proposal adopted by the General Conference 2016 calling for the council to appoint a commission to review all portions of the church’s lawbook dealing with human sexuality.
Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough said he believes there’s a strong commitment on the part of the council and the denomination as a whole to “move in a direction that does not reflect some of the intense divisiveness that we’ve seen in fellow mainline denominations.”
Asked if that meant an exit strategy for churches that wish to leave with their property, Ough said “not necessarily.”
“I just think we have to be very, very open to innovation,” he said. “It’s difficult for any organization to be truly open to the spirit and to the imagination of God when we’re in the midst of such great anxiety and fear.”
Ough said he did not foresee newly elected Bishop Karen Oliveto getting ill treatment within the Council of Bishops, based on some members’ opposition to her election.
What will happen with any challenge to the election, such as the South Central Jurisdiction appeal to the Judicial Council for a declaratory judgment, is unclear.
“There are no precise precedents for the drama of this kind of thing where church law specifically says a person in this situation shall not be ordained or appointed and, suddenly, exactly the person described in church law is elected bishop,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, a Perkins School of Theology professor of church history and former president of the denomination’s Judicial Council.
“The bishops, it seems to me, will have to find a way to model a kind of unity in these circumstances if the church has any hope of finding a way to develop a flexible pattern for unity.”
“I think in the short run there will be significant anxiety and negative reaction in many parts of the church,” he said. “And there will be great celebration in other parts of the church. The election reflects an expression of the division we currently have over matters of human sexuality.”
Ough said Oliveto’s election would likely be a main topic of conversation when the Council of Bishops executive committee meets July 19-20 in Chicago.
Oliveto was one of 15 clergy elected as United Methodist bishops during U.S. jurisdictional conferences this week.
Tensions among bishops
Oliveto’s election might intensify tensions within the council, said the Rev. William Lawrence, a Perkins School of Theology professor of church history and former president of the denomination’s Judicial Council.
“There will be members of the Council of Bishops, active bishops who have voice and vote, who find themselves in a position where their own theology and their own ecclesial leadership in the church would find Bishop Oliveto’s presence intolerable,” Lawrence said.
To Lawrence, Oliveto’s election “has changed the dynamic” and created a situation unlike any the denomination has faced.
“I don’t think schism is inevitable but I think it is more likely now than it was yesterday,” Lawrence said.
Reactions across the connection
The Rev. Ed Tomlinson, pastor of Lanier United Methodist Church in the North Georgia Conference, said he is disappointed that the Western Jurisdiction did not wait to see what the bishops’ commission would do.
“It seems they rushed to judgment without really caring whether all voices are heard or not,” said Tomlinson, a retired district superintendent and veteran General Conference delegate.
The Rev. Beth LaRocca-Pitts, a Southeastern Jurisdiction delegate, is the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Saint Mark United Methodist Church where a majority of members are LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
“We’re ecstatic (about Oliveto’s election),” she said. “It means a lot to that population that one of their number has been lifted up as a bishop of the church.”
Oliveto’s election, she said, also means the voice of gay people will be represented in the work of the bishops’ commission.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a clergyman in the California-Pacific Conference who went through a church trial for officiating at the same-gender wedding of his son, said the Oliveto's election is good news for the LGBTQ community and strengthens the LGBTQ rights movement.
“It's a seismic shift towards LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church! It is bound to propel the dialogue within the church to a higher and more urgent level,” he said.
He added he hoped this election will not be used as an excuse to force schism similar to what happened following the election of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
Many of the United Methodists in Africa will have serious problems with this decision, said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Liberia.
“We are in prayers here in Africa as we trust God to continue to lead us on the ancient path (the holy, undiluted Word of God) Jeremiah 6:16. We shall not be moved. We will continue to remain obedient to the teaching of Scripture and loyal to Jesus Christ,” he said.
The Bible is the primary authority, supported by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, he said.
“Those violating the Bible and Book of Discipline of the UMC are saying to the global UMC community that they are taking their exit and transferring their loyalty somewhere else,” Kulah said.
Groups that support the current church position against ordaining gay clergy said they are considering what to do.
Both the Confessing Movement and Good News said in statements after the election that evangelicals and traditionalists within the church will be conferring in the next few days to agree upon responses.
The Confessing Movement invited those who want to defend current church doctrine to meet in Chicago on Oct. 7 to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
“There is no agenda for this meeting other than to seek God's will for those who are evangelicals in The United Methodist Church,” the group said.
The statement said the group supports the work of the bishops’ commission and in the meantime calls upon the bishops and leaders of the church to “follow the Discipline” even if that brings them into conflict with those who are not following the lawbook.
The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, who was a strong bishop candidate in the Western Jurisdiction, said during her withdrawal speech that the election of Oliveto was “a miracle we could not plan.”
“And I would like to say to my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, that as in this moment you are being included in an extreme way, do not forget what it’s like to be excluded to those who do not agree with you. Because if we don’t make a witness to the world to be loving of the whole body of Christ, then why in the heck are we here?”
She said this was a moment to show the rest of the world the denomination does not have to split because of theology.
Acknowledging the pain her election will cause for many in the church, Oliveto said she hoped she could bear witness to their pain.
“I know they are carrying great pain and a lot of questions. … I hope I can catch their tears, bear witness to their pain, then walk as their sister in Christ as we both seek to be led to a place neither one of us intended to go.”
Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. UMNS reporters Sam Hodges and Heather Hahn contributed to this story, as did Todd Seifert, director of communications, Great Plains Conference. Contact Gilbert at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].