By Walter Fenton-
The Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops of The United Methodist Church cannot take “no” for an answer.
Less than seven weeks ago the denomination’s Judicial Council (it’s “Supreme Court”) ruled, “A same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities together with [a] clergy person’s status in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual for purposes of [church law].”
This seems like common sense to most people, but not to the Western Jurisdiction’s bishops. They believe the justices got this part of their recent decision wrong, and therefore the bishops have formally filed a motion for reconsideration. If five of the nine Judicial Council members agree, the whole Council will reconsider this part of their ruling when they meet in Los Angeles in late October of this year.
The bishops’ request for reconsideration appears to be another attempt to delay confronting a crisis of their own creating. All of them knew that prior to her election, consecration, and assignment, Bishop Karen Oliveto had presided at same-sex weddings, and was herself married to a UM deaconess, but none had filed complaints against her.
Furthermore, at the Western Jurisdictional Conference last July not one of the bishops could find his or her voice to say something like, “Friends, I disagree with the church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. However, as a bishop I have vowed to defend those teachings until they are changed by the will of our General Conference and according to our polity. Violating church law because you do not like it is no way forward, particularly since General Conference just approved the appointment of a Commission we all hope will address these matters in a more favorable way for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Please refrain from a provocative election that will plunge the church into a crisis and undermine the work of the Commission.”
But that was not to be, instead, Oliveto was elected, consecrated, and assigned. Within days, Bishop Grant Hagiya, president of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops, reported “multiple complaints” had been filed against her. And yet, ten months later there has been no word on the status of those complaints. The bishops have found time, however, to contest any challenges to Oliveto’s election, consecration, and assignment.
According to church law, the disposition of complaints against a bishop must be reported after 120 days. However, if those involved in the matter have not reached a resolution they can request an additional 120 days, and, if necessary, another 120 if there is still no resolution. Apparently, these requests have been made and granted in Oliveto’s case even though the extensions seem unwarranted.
While Oliveto’s case is certainly sensational – designed to be so by those who nominated, elected, consecrated, and elected her – it is not a complicated one. The church prohibits pastors from presiding at same-sex wedding; she has admitted to presiding at approximately fifty. The church defines marriage as between one man and one woman; she is, by public record, married to another woman.
The options here are fairly obvious. One, Oliveto acknowledges her violations of church law, rectifies them, and vows to conform to church teachings heretofore. Two, she states she is not willing to conform to church teachings, vacates her episcopal office, and surrenders her ministerial credentials. Or three, she declares the complaints are unwarranted and moves to have them dismissed. Presumably, the complainant in the matter would disagree, engendering an investigation and church trial.
While all this may seem obvious, and is in fact the process the Judicial Council directed the relevant parties to initiate, the Western Jurisdiction bishops appear to be attempting to indefinitely postpone any day of reckoning. A request for reconsideration allows the bishops to claim their willingness to abide by church law, while simultaneously avoiding its implementation.
In the past, there have been at least two cases where clergy have openly advertised they were in same-sex partnered relationships. The cases resulted in trials, but when questioned, the clergy involved refused to acknowledge whether they were “practicing homosexuality.” Consequently, the complaints against the clergy members were dismissed.
But in its latest ruling, the Judicial Council said, “A same-sex marriage license… is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual for purposes of [church law].” This is common sense, and in keeping with a principal aim of LGBTQ+ advocates: the legitimization of same-sex marriage and the church’s imprimatur that the practice of homosexuality is compatible with Christian teaching.
It seems disingenuous now, and it strains credulity, for the Western Jurisdiction bishops to claim same-sex marriage does not necessarily imply the practice of homosexuality. One of the historically-understood presumptions of marriage, as the Judicial Council notes, is sexual intimacy. Perhaps the bishops are now seeking to further expand the definition of marriage to include people who are just good friends, who might even be sexually attracted to one another, but have no interest in sexual intimacy.
This is just game playing, and thankfully the Judicial Council’s latest decision foreclosed this defense as an avenue to avoid what church law clearly states. But unfortunately, for at least for a few more weeks or even months, the Western Jurisdiction bishops’ request for reconsideration allows them to claim they are unable to resolve the complaint against Oliveto until their request for reconsideration is taken up. (Surely, some of the Judicial Council members are now regretting not concurring with their colleague Warren Plowden’s dissenting opinion that would have legally and sensibly voided Oliveto’s election, consecration, and assignment.)
The Western Jurisdiction bishops are all too aware that if they followed the Judicial Council’s instructions to pursue the case according to church law, Oliveto could be forced to vacate her episcopal office and lose her ministerial credentials.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.