By Walter Fenton-
According to a United Methodist News Service article dated August 23, 2016, Bishop Grant Hagiya, president of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops, said newly elected Bishop Karen Oliveto, an open lesbian married to a deaconess in The United Methodist Church, “faces multiple complaints under church law … [and] that he has initiated the church’s supervisory process that seeks to reach a resolution without trial.”
No one has heard anything since.
Oliveto’s election came after General Conference had agreed to table all petitions to change the church’s sexual ethics, and after it had authorized the Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to study the matter and present a definitive plan for resolving the long running debate at an unprecedented, called General Conference. Delegates, church leaders, and bishops left the conference with an understanding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality remained fully in force while also allowing time for the commission to do its work.
Oliveto’s election also came amid heightened acts of defiance and votes by progressive annual conferences to reject the will of the church’s governance structure and its good order. When the Western Jurisdiction announced her election it rocked a church already reeling from the long and acrimonious debate, and a massive drop in worship attendance over the past 10 years.
In response, a number of active bishops issued statements lamenting her election as a breach of the church’s teachings and covenant. The South Central
Jurisdictional Conference immediately petitioned the denomination’s Judicial Council (its “Supreme Court”) regarding the legality of the Western Jurisdiction’s action. The executive committee of the Council of Bishops, citing “the great importance of the matter,” asked the Judicial Council to expedite its hearing of the case. And of course many United Methodists regarded her election as an event likely to tip the church towards separation or dissolution.
In short, Oliveto’s election has pushed the church to the brink of division, and its ramifications are almost certainly taking a toll on worship attendance and giving across the connection. But despite all of the turmoil, the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops has said nothing about its disposition of the “multiple complaints” filed against her.
Its dithering should surprise no one. In October 2013, shortly after retired Bishop Melvin Talbert presided at a same-sex service in Birmingham, Alabama, the Council of Bishops, in closed-door sessions at its November 2013 meetings, directed two of its colleagues to file a complaint against him. The complaint was finally filed in March 2014, and the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops took another nine months for investigation, conversation and deliberation. It finally announced a trivial resolution of the matter on December 30 of the same year.
Talbert’s case was not a complicated one, nor is Oliveto’s. There was no ambiguity about Talbert’s participation in a same-sex wedding in Birmingham. He participated with the express aim of drawing attention to his act of defiance. In the same way, Oliveto has never attempted to conceal she is married to her female partner, and in the past she has boasted that she has presided at over 50 same-sex weddings.
Given the liberal tilt of her four episcopal colleagues in the Western Jurisdiction, few people believe the panel handling the complaint will do anything more than announce a “just resolution” that leaves Oliveto in place. But that decision would be clarifying for the whole church, and it would inform the work of the special commission as it ponders the realistic options before it.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Oliveto’s presiding at same-sex services or her own marriage, fair-minded people can and should expect a just and timely resolution of a case with implications for the entire connection. At a minimum, the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops owes the church some report on the status of the complaints filed against her.
Its failure to act or to even report on the matters is indicative of either arrogance or disdain for the wider church.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.