An Invitation to Endless Church Conflict

Judicial Council 2016-2020, UMNS

Judicial Council 2016-2020, UMNS

By Walter Fenton-

Most United Methodists have long recognized the debate over the church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage has reached an impasse. However, a legal brief submitted to the UM Church’s Judicial Council (its “Supreme Court”) argues otherwise. It essentially invites the church’s highest court to prolong the legal maneuvering for several more years.

The brief, filed on behalf of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, is in regard to last July’s election and consecration of an openly gay, married bishop. In late April of this year the Judicial Council will consider the legality of the moves. Shortly thereafter it will issue what is sure to be one of the most important judicial decisions in the UM Church’s history.

When the Western Jurisdiction Conference, meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the whole church, the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ), which was meeting concurrently in Wichita, Kansas, voted to ask the Judicial Council to rule whether her nomination, election and consecration were lawful. Parties on both sides have since submitted briefs.

The brief from the Western Jurisdiction (WJ) is a combination of chutzpah and legalistic hairsplitting.

Its first line of defense is to claim the election of an openly gay, married bishop in its jurisdiction has no bearing on the work of the SCJ or, forWestern Jurisdiction that matter, any other jurisdiction. Therefore, it argues, the Judicial Council should, in so many words, tell the SCJ to butt out of its business.

Realizing this argument might not fly, the brief goes on to invite the Council to join the WJ in either ignoring or engaging in legalistic hairsplitting when it comes to The Book of Discipline.

At the time of her election, the brief argues, Oliveto was a pastor in good standing so the WJ’s election of her was perfectly legitimate.

True, it acknowledges, most if not all the delegates and bishops at the WJ conference knew she had admitted to the New York Times she had presided at some 50 same-sex weddings during her tenure as a UM pastor. And yes, they were also aware UM pastors are prohibited from presiding at such affairs. And yes, they knew she was married to a deaconess in the UM Church. And true, they were aware the church defines marriage as between one man and one woman. But …

Rev. Karen Oliveto accepting her election, UMNS

Rev. Karen Oliveto accepting her election, UMNS

No one had ever filed a complaint against Oliveto. She had never been found guilty of violating the Discipline. And besides, while the Discipline clearly defines marriage as between one man and woman, it never explicitly states a pastor or a bishop cannot be married to a person of the same sex. This is akin to the boy caught stealing, responding to his parents’ citation of the commandment, “You shall not steal,” with the retort, “God never specifically said I should not steal.”

Again, sensing the weakness of its argument, the brief reminds the Council a special commission is studying matters germane to this case. Better, it argues, for the Council to stand down for now, and defer to the uncertain outcome of the commission’s work and a special called General Conference that may or may not meet in 2019.

To their credit, the brief’s authors do a passable job of making weak arguments sound the better. But moments of reflection reveal how strained they are.

First, when a bishop is elected, she is elected as a bishop of the whole church, not just the jurisdiction in which she is elected. She will join her colleagues on the Council of Bishops as a chief executive officer for the whole church. She is liable to serve as the presiding officer at General Conferences, she will nominate clergy and lay people to serve on general church boards and agencies, and serve herself as a chairperson of those same boards and agencies. Furthermore, it is not unheard of for bishops to end up serving in jurisdictions other than the one in which they were elected. The SCJ, along with other jurisdictions, clearly has a legitimate interest in the lawfulness of episcopal elections in the separate jurisdictions.

Second, the claim that Oliveto was a clergy member in good standing at the time of her election and consecration is an argument the Judicial Council should thoroughly explore. Why that fiction was true will drive home the necessity of it ruling in favor of the SCJ, and simultaneously reveal the roots of the UM Church’s present crisis.

The only reason Oliveto could be said to be in good standing was because clergy colleagues, district superintendents, and bishops were all complicit in ignoring the plain facts of her situation. Many knew she had presided at same sex weddings. And long before she arrived in Scottsdale last July, most, if not all, the delegates and bishops present knew she was married to another woman. And if they didn’t know when they arrived, they learned of it shortly thereafter. Still, the delegates elected her, and the bishops consecrated her, knowing she had violated church law.

The WJ brief is inviting the Judicial Council to play along with this charade; it should not. When district superintendents, bishops, and an entire jurisdictional conference become complicit in allowing a pastor to flout church law, it becomes imperative for the Judicial Council to act. It is the only body left that can defend the church’s polity and maintain the good order of the church.

Furthermore, there is no reason it should defer to the Commission or a potential called General Conference. When the 2016 General Conference approved of the Commission’s creation, it never even intimated the Judicial Council should suspend the enforcement of church law. It must continue to fulfill its duties regardless of developments that may or may not happen.

Nor should the Council fall for the spurious argument that rendering a decision would usurp the General Conference’s legislative function. The SCJ’s request for a declaratory decision does not request the Council to legislate; it simply asks it to interpret and apply church law. And in this case it is imperative it does so since the Western Jurisdiction delegates and bishops have demonstrated they have no intention of abiding by or enforcing it.

Finally, it is important to note the SCJ’s brief is not asking the Judicial Council to take or suspend Oliveto’s ministerial credentials. In fact, Oliveto is only a party to the case insofar as she made herself complicit in the WJ’s defiance of church law and its willingness to provoke a church crisis. Should the Council rule the WJ’s actions null and void, she will remain a clergy person in good standing and be available for an appointment. And if a complaint is filed against her, she will be entitled to due process. But neither she nor the WJ are entitled to flout church law.

The Judicial Council should call the Western Jurisdiction’s bluff, ignore a brief inviting it to countenance endless church conflict, and end the legal wrangling.

_______________________________________

To read the brief on behalf the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops click  HERE.

To read the brief on behalf of Ms. Dixie Brewster, the South Central Jurisdiction lay delegate who made the motion requesting the declaratory decision, click HERE.

To read a reply to the brief on behalf the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops click HERE.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. If we could time travel and place this dilemma in the 1st century, how would the Apostles deal with it? It seems to me that the LGBT activists want to drive an even bigger wedge between the orthodox church and those like themselves who call for abandonment of scripture and tradition (BOD). Resolution of conflict is not even on their radar. Where is the apostolic leadership in today’s UM Church?

  2. It is long past time for this issue to be settled. Continuing to kick the can down the road year after year solves nothing and does a disservice to UMC members who are waiting anxiously to see what our leaders do before deciding what our options are.

  3. Benjie L. Bernardo says

    Very good points & arguments raced. I do agree that the purpose of the Judicial Council is to to interpret & uphold the policies of the church & not to legislate. I agree that all elected bishops are bishops of the entire UMC and not only the jurisdictions. I agree that until the BOD policies are not changed, then all hace to comply since all have taken the vows to do so as UMC members. I agree that WD issue of electing an openly gay bishop who violates the BOD by performing same sex marriage is incongruent to the BOD and its election should be declared nulled. It is imperative that all should comply to the policy of the BOD, we have this in our vows, we agreed to it, which is why we became members. It is not a matter of what us mora or spiritual but what is legitimate as per BOD. Unless this policy has not been changed, the JD should uphold the laws of the church. This is separate from the study and recommendations to be submitted in 2018 to the GBGM. Let me quote “What does profit a man if he gains the whole world but lose his own soul”. If it does come to a point od schism, then maybe we should not be afraid to confront this… There should not be compromise… We respect their stand to their schisms & new beliefs, however they too have to respect ours. Remember, John Wesley did not start with jurisdictions & many churches. We can always continue to do missions to fulfill the great commission. To God be the Glory forever!!!

  4. Ian McDonald says

    This is the most ridiculous argument I have heard to date. The actions of the WJ Conference are nothing short of a blatantly schismatic act directed towards the rest of the United Methodist Connection daring the other Bishops to do something about it. It is high time that the “progressives” take their gnostic arguments and leave the connection.

  5. I served as a delegate to the WJ. This was a unanimous election. The Holy Spirit led us. She is a great bishop .

    • So, there was not a single person in your jurisdiction who thinks the Book of Discipline should be followed? What about the vows these preachers took before God, their bishops and everyone else to uphold the Book of Discipline when they were ordained? Did they lie during that process? Change their minds later? Why even join an organization whose rules you don’t agree with and don’t plan to uphold? This sounds like chaos-we will pick and choose which rules we plan to follow on any given day without any formal process having been completed to change those rules. It’s a very slippery slope.

    • Rev Margaret Stratton says

      Duane, The Holy Spirit will never lead one to contradict Scripture. Sometimes we get our flesh involved with sympathy towards an individual and we rule in their favor. When the Holy Spirit will never go against the commands of Christ. As much as we love these individuals we must tell them the truth in God’s eyes they are in sin. God is love but he is just and enforces his comma nds. When we really love people we have to tell them this alternative lifestyle is condemned by God but, they can truly repent abandon it and God will forgive and restore them. This shows His great mercy and love they can be forgiven. Just like all who come to Christ must first acknowledge by conviction of the H.S., they are sire lost and condemned without Jesus Christ. We cry out for Christ to save us with all our heart and the Bible says if you seek me with all your heart you shall be found of me. We can be forgiven and birthed into a Holy life. That is Goooood News!

    • The year before Karen came to Glide the worship attendance was 3,600. The year she left it was reported as 2,150, a 40% drop in attendance in 8 years. Forget all issues of sexuality. Her election seems to have flipped any notion of proved effectiveness out the window. Or look at it this way. Every weekend over 10,000 members of Glide stayed away from worship, nearly 80%, and definitely not because Karen was too conservative, or liberal. Does the WJ really want her to replicate in her conference the results she produced in her local church leadership? She can be, and is, a perfectly nice person but darn. If the WJ does temporarily beat the rap with the JC, Psalm 106:15 kicks in…”God granted their request but sent leanness to their soul.” For our purposes it may turn out that “The JC granted their request, which sent leanness to their (membership) roll…” I hope not.

    • Steve Babcock says

      Duane, I live in Yellowstone and our two delegates, Tyler Amundsen and Don McAmmon asked for a meeting with our church to explain their votes. They lied to us, Tyler tried to tell us that Karen increased attendance. True is attendance dropped by 40% while she was there. They also lied about her bio where she says her greatest ministry was going against California law and dispensing marijuana from the church.
      My question to you is if this was truly from the Holy Spirit why do they to lie about it?
      The Western Jurisdiction is obviously the poorest run jurisdiction in the world by virtue of their membership decline. They have less than 2% of the membership and yet believe they need to make policy for the entire Methodist Church..
      To believe this is from the Holy Spirit is delusional

      tyler

      Amundsen delegates asked for a special meeting wit

  6. Bill Hurter says

    The mere fact that there has to be a hearing before the Judicial Council, or anyone else for that matter, as to the legality of Oliveto’s appointment, marriage and presiding over same sex marriages is ludicrous at best and shameful at worst. This has already been addressed in the Holy Scriptures. The UMC should abide by the teachings of scripture or cease claimimg itself to be christian. This idiocy is one reason why we left the UMC last November, even though we probably should have left years ago.

  7. Licensed Local Pastor says

    Let’s call this what it is an overtly schismatic act that demands some type of action on the part of the connection. We are now at a crossroads where we are being asked to decide for or against the authority of scripture and the very words of Christ on what defines marriage. All the twisting and turning of words cannot change the fact that we are called to take a stand either with God or with the world.

  8. Kent Ingram says

    Bishop Oliveto was an elder in good standing when elected. Your argument seems to be that IF a complaint was filed, and IF charges were brought, and IF a trial was held, and IF she was found guilty and IF she was stripped of her credentials, THEN she would have been ineligible to run. With that kind of reasoning you could remove every single properly elected bishop in the church. Every one…

    Like Duane, I was there. The movement of God’s Spirit was powerful and obvious. She is my bishop and doing a great job! Her heart is full of the love of Christ, she has visited all across this large area and is focused on the local congregations and their abilities to make disciples. I am grateful to have her spiritual leadership.

  9. Sherry Looney says

    As far as this member is concerned they are mocking God and I cannot and will not tolerate it. They are making us look like fools without Christian values. And the worst point is we are paying them to do it. I can handle playing the fool in God’s control, but I am going to draw the line at mocking the word of God. Our members are leaving by droves and taking their children with them as they should.. Nehemiah obeyed God. He at least tried to do his job.
    I stand with God and His Word.

  10. A special General Conference is now a necessity to finally address this schism. And, the only way to solve the schism is to get on with a separation plan. After all, the Western Jurisdiction, for example, has already declared its independence from the UMC. It is time to formalize this fact and permit those others who want to join in to go as well.

    • William, brother in Christ, how will any conference, or ANY decision we take now address this “finally” if it is a decision which affirms that people who identify as “not normal” are to be in some way treated differently?

      Serious question. Jesus did not exclude people. Even putting that aside, excluding now or treating them differently will not “finally” solve this.

      Why do I say this? Because some of us “normal” people will procreate and have children that are beautiful children of God who either suffer in silence or announce they are not of what we perceive to be normal sexuality and normal gender.

      It will happen. And they will be in our new church. And we will again be back here, arguing for a “final” resolution, with many opposing views, and a lot of hurt, which I cannot believe God wants for his family and his church body.

  11. While monitoring GC2012, the visual image that came to my mind was that the UMC was a gianormous raft with umpteen oars lining the sides each paddling the best it knew how.

    After GC2016, after I had had enough of each side pointing fingers at each other and arguing over who was the most schismatic, the image changed to cats with their tails tied together.

    Over the past few days I have begun to wonder if the most apt description is male deer with their antlers locked together taking turns pushing and pulling each other, a scenario that ends in death for all concerned.

    The real sign of the dysfunction within the UMC is that an issue that has been clearly decided by multiple General Conferences has been allowed to fester so long that the church is now in jeopardy.. And the reason it has been allowed to reach this point is that for too long too many Bishops have viewed keeping all the theological balls in play as their main priority. And the reason we have so many theological balls in play is that in the vacuum created by teaching nothing in particular all sorts of conflicting and contradictory thoughts and understanding have been allowed to take root and been given credibility!. Someone outside of the UMC suggested that just maybe the reason the church has become unintelligible to the world in general is because the church has become unintelligible to itself. Welcome to the Unintelligible Methodist Church which has far exceeded John Wesley’s fear that Methodism would just become the form of religion without the power; collectively we believe absolutely nothing in particular.

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