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UNITED METHODIST CHURCH DISUNITES
May 11, 2017
For years I have been joking that someone should sue the United Methodist Church for misrepresentation, because it is the most dis-united organization I have ever belonged to. In fact, about 15 years ago I predicted that the denomination would have a formal schism within 10 years. Obviously, my timing was off. But the meeting of the church’s Judicial Council late last month convinced me that schism is still inevitable, and now I give it less than five more years to happen. The crucial event was a hearing about the status of Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay United Methodist to be elected and consecrated as a bishop.
The denomination’s policies and practices on the issue of homosexuality have long been the focal point of a broad divide between traditionalists and “progressives” within it’s ranks. The two key elements in the debate, besides a general moral condemnation of homosexuality, have been gay marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” In practice, the church has been following a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and some gays have been ordained and allowed to serve as ministers without any action being taken against them. It depended largely upon the particular bishop in their particular annual conference. But making a gay minister a bishop raised the stakes and a challenge was inevitable. In fact, the regional organization that elected her, the Western Jurisdiction, made sure that this would be a crucial case by electing her unanimously. That made it clear that she was not just the choice of the majority of delegates. It was an unmistakable message that one of the 5 geographical regions of the United Methodist Church in America was deliberately challenging and defying an official law of the international denomination.
As a United Methodist who has been active for at least 15 years in the ongoing struggle to change my denomination’s anti-gay policies and practices, I of course have a very personal interest in the Oliveto case. Like other progressive Methodists, I would have liked to see a clear vindication of the right of gays to be ordained and to be elected and consecrated as bishops. But there was no way that would happen. Traditionalists wanted Karen Oliveto not to be a Bishop, but I did not expect that to happen, either.
On the way home from the open hearing at the beginning of the Judicial Council’s deliberations, I told my pastor that I thought the best realistic outcome would be for the Council to rule against Bishop Oliveto. When the ruling was finally announced, it was murky and indecisive, with something to offend everyone. While ruling that Oliveto is currently a validly elected and consecrated bishop, the committee paradoxically left the prohibition against self-avowed practicing homosexuals in the clergy intact. It also basically made its own ruling irrelevant by saying that that a complaint against her is currently under review by the Jurisdictional Committee of the Western Jurisdiction, the very one that elected her in the first place. So as of now, nothing has been resolved. And I do not think it will be.
The division within the United Methodist Church is so deep that I and an increasingly large number of my fellow Methodists see no remedy other than for conservatives and progressives to agree to go their separate ways. I think our denomination is on an express train to a formal schism, probably within 5 years. In February of 2019, a special session of the United Methodist General Conference will meet to consider a report from the Council of Bishops based on the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. That will bring the issue to a head and, I believe, make it clear that there is no way forward for us as a single denomination. Between now and then there will be a lot of preparation on both sides for the inevitable split. I hope that the Western
Jurisdiction will stand firm in its support of Karen Oliveto and full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church. If it does, it may well become the rallying point for the formation of a new denomination. The conservatives have already formed a vehicle called the Wesleyan Covenant Association that can be used to organize an independent course. Separation. Parting will be a painful process, but it will enable all Methodists to focus on doing God’s will as they interpret it rather than fighting endlessly over what that entails.