Good News greets with some dismay – as will many men and women in the pews – the Judicial Council’s convoluted and ultimately unsatisfactory ruling regarding the Western Jurisdictional Conference’s nomination, election, consecration, and assignment of Bishop Karen Oliveto, an openly gay bishop who is married to another woman, and one who has admitted to presiding at some 50 same-sex weddings.
In its dense, nineteen-page ruling the Council says many of the right things, but as so often is the case with the institutional church, it fails to take the necessary action. It leaves Oliveto in her office, and essentially remands the case to the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops. And as United Methodists have come to realize, that jurisdiction has a solid track record of defying and even mocking the church’s polity and law when it comes to its sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. Because of past decisions and statements, we have little confidence the Western Jurisdiction bishops will properly handle a case where the facts are obvious to all. It is unlikely that a penalty commensurate to the breach will be meted out swiftly.
By allowing Oliveto’s election and assignment to stand, the decision has sown further confusion across the connection. Many rank-and-file United Methodists will conclude no branch of the church is actually willing to defend its biblically rooted, time-honored, and widely shared teachings on sexual practice and marriage. It will deepen the sense of malaise and reinforce the growing opinion that church leaders just continue to “kick the can down the road.” Concerned United Methodists will find it strange that we do not permit our clergy to conduct same-sex unions in our sanctuaries but that a bishop was consecrated after having performed dozens of them and is herself party to one.
Despite this frank assessment we remain convinced we have very good reasons to remain hopeful for the people called Methodists.
First, the Judicial Council’s decision has now clarified things for the Commission on a Way Forward. If the Western Jurisdiction (and other jurisdictions and annual conferences) persists in defiance, it will make it clear that those actions have placed The United Methodist Church in schism and that it is no longer possible for us to live together in one body. It then becomes incumbent upon the commission to devise a plan of separation that is as fair and equitable as possible. If we can no longer go forward as a church united by its teachings and polity, then we must plan to go our separate ways. A new structure will allow conservative, orthodox, and evangelical congregations to give their full focus to proclaiming the Gospel and growing the kingdom of God through innovative and entrepreneurial forms of ministry for the 21st century.
Second, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) holds the promise of being the vehicle for the renewal and revitalization of Methodism in whatever comes next.
Finally, we remain steadfastly confident in the power of the Gospel revealed to us in Scripture. It transforms us, empowers us, and enables us to rise above seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We will persevere, and we are confident the prize we contend for is not far off.