Western Jurisdiction elects openly gay United Methodist bishop

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The Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, has been elected as the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop by delegates at the Western Jurisdictional Conference.

Oliveto, 58, was elected July 15 at the jurisdiction’s quadrennial meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was elected on the 17th ballot with 88 votes after the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank and the Rev. Walter “Skip” Strickland withdrew from the election. The Rev. Frank Wulf, another openly gay candidate, had withdrawn earlier. 

“I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God. I want to thank the candidates who I have journeyed with these past few days, for the grace with which we walked with each other. And know I stand before you because of the work and prayers of so many, especially those saints who yearned to live for this day, who blazed a trail where there was none, who are no longer with us, and yet whose shoulders I stand on,” Oliveto said after her election.

She especially thanked the delegates of the Western Jurisdiction “who dared to live into this Kairos moment. Today we took a step closer to embody beloved community and while we may be moving there, we are not there yet. We are moving on to perfection,” Oliveto said.

She said as along as people “walk by our churches and wonder” if they belong, because of race, sexuality orientation, ethnicity, social class or immigration status, then “we have work to do.”

“Are we able? Yes. Amen,” Oliveto said.

Bishop Melvin Talbert, retired from the Western Jurisdiction, said he wasn’t sure he would ever live to see the day when the church would elect an openly gay bishop.

“This means our church — at least part of our church — has finally come to the realization that there is no longer any place for exclusion. We are all children of God regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or abilities. We would be blessed to invite all God’s people to their rightful place at the table.”

In a statement issued following Oliveto’s election, Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said, “This election raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity.”

Ough clarified that the Council of Bishops does not have constitutional authority to intervene in the election, but “is monitoring this situation very closely.”

He acknowledged that some in the church will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while others will consider it a milestone toward being a more inclusive church. 

“Our differences are real and cannot be glossed over, but they are also reconcilable,” Ough said. “We are confident God is with us, especially in uncharted times and places.”

The Book of Discipline, the church's lawbook, bans "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ordination, but many gay clergy came out before General Conference 2016. Several annual conferences in 2016 passed resolutions not to conform with any church laws seen to discriminate against LGBTQ people. 

On the heels of Oliveto’s election, members of the South Central Jurisdiction voted late on July 15 to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding same-sex church leaders.

There was some immediate negative reaction to Oliveto’s election.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist organization that upholds the church’s current stance on homosexuality issues, said the election and other actions by annual conference this summer ignored the Council of Bishops' proposal for a commission to examine all church law dealing with human sexuality. Renfroe said that proposal called for a “pause for prayer to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God's will for the future.”

“Instead, these conferences have moved ahead with legislative enactments pledging non-conformity with the Book of Discipline, culminating in the election of a practicing homosexual as bishop,” said Renfroe. “If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so.”

But the reaction at the Western Jurisdiction was a celebration.

“We just blew the socks off the denomination,” said Lynn Magnuson, laity from the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Wesley Hingano said, “It is a beautiful day.” His father, the Rev. Sisofina Hingano, was also a candidate for bishop. When Hingano withdrew his name from the ballot, he said he was doing it so people like his son could walk through the doors to freedom in the church.

“I want to see gay and lesbian people walk freely,” he said.

The social media messages in the last few days have been full of fear, said the Rev. Jeremy Smith, minister of Discipleship at First United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.

“All I have heard today are messages full of hope. I have two girls under the age of 4 and I am excited they will grow up in (a) United Methodist Church that tells them whatever they are, they can follow God's call at every level of our beloved church,” Smith said.

Lonnie Brooks, Alaska Conference, said the election of Oliveto was the Western Jurisdiction declaring its independence from The United Methodist Church.

“A lot of folks will look at it and think that is what they intend. What they haven’t given much thought to is that this will also cause a split in the West. We have some of the strongest red states here,” Brooks said, sounding a note of caution.

The Rev. William Lawrence — former president of the Judicial Council, the church’s top court — said before Oliveto was elected 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.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, said the Western and Northeastern Juridiction’s actions “effectively renouncing their connection to the rest of global United Methodism” mean that  evangelicals and traditionalists within the church will be conferring in the next few days to agree upon responses to what he called “this grave breach of unity.”

“If our covenant is no longer in force, we will be forced to live into a new reality in our denomination,” he said.

Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist organization that advocates for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) “celebrates with great joy the election of the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church.”

“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 group said in a statement.

With the retirement of Bishop Warner J. Brown Jr., the Western Jurisdiction only had one bishop to elect. Oliveto was elected by the 100 delegates, an equal number of United Methodist clergy and laity, from the 12 states that form the Western Jurisdiction. The assignments of bishops in the Western Jurisdiction for the next four years will be announced later in the week. Her four-year term of service begins Sept. 1.

Oliveto is married to Robin Ridenour, who is a deaconess in California-Nevada Conference

Oliveto, nominated by the California-Nevada Conference, began her ministry as pastor of Bloomville (N.Y.) United Methodist and has served as a campus minister at San Francisco State, pastor of Bethany United Methodist in San Francisco and a faculty member at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She is a two-time General Conference delegate, a five-time Jurisdictional Conference delegate and serves on the board of the United Methodist Council of Finance and Administration. She is also an adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies at the Pacific School of Religion. She has been at Glide since 2008. She is a graduate of Pacific School of Religion and Drew University.

A consecration service for the new bishop will be held Saturday, July 16, at 2 p.m. at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church. The ceremony can be watched live at the Western Jurisdiction’s website.

Within the United States, local United Methodist churches are organized into increasingly larger groups: numerous districts, dozens of annual conferences and five jurisdictions (regions). Five active bishops now lead the eight annual conferences that form the Western Jurisdiction.

A United Methodist bishop is elected for life. Typically, a bishop will serve in a specific annual conference for eight years. The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, directs each bishop to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Church” and to “lead all persons entrusted to their oversight in worship, in the celebration of the sacraments, and in their mission of witness and service in the world.” Bishops also are to be “prophetic voices and courageous leaders in the cause of justice for all people.”

The states represented in this jurisdiction are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact Gilbert at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. 

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