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, for 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 …
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.