The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, senior minister of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, has been elected as a bishop by the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. She is the first openly married lesbian to be elected bishop within the denomination. After two other candidates withdrew concluding the 16th ballot, Oliveto’s name was the lone candidate choice on the screen before the delegates.
She was one of three openly gay candidates running for bishop within The United Methodist Church. Gathering in Phoenix, the Western Jurisdiction delegates sent a provocative message to the worldwide 12-million member United Methodist Church – a denomination with over 5 million members in Africa and the Philippines.
“I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God,” Oliveto said from the podium after her election. “I want to thank the candidates who I have journeyed with these past few days, for the grace with which we walked with each other. And I know I stand before you because of the work and prayers of so many, especially those saints who yearned to live for this day, who blazed a trail where there was none, who are no longer with us, and yet whose shoulders I stand on.”
Oliveto was a prominent signer of an open letter written by 111 “local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry” with the intent to publicly come out to General Conference delegates on the day before the policy-making event took place in Portland. She has been the chair of the board of Reconciling Ministries Network and recently served as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Pacific School of Religion where she continues as adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies.
“There is a lot of dissatisfaction on all sides of the theology divide about the state of the church,” Oliveto told CBS News in San Francisco in May. “While the ‘issue’ is human sexuality, it goes much deeper theologically into how we interpret Scripture. It is time the UMC finally has an honest conversation about this.”
The Council of Bishops was charged by the 2016 General Conference to create a special commission to explore the possibility of how the denomination can move forward with seemingly irreconciable theological differences over interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexuality. Half a dozen annual conferences in the United States preemptively voted to pass variations on a resolution of non-conformity to the provisions of the Book of Discipline on issues of human sexuality.
The election of an openly gay bishop is not the kind of conversation that moderate and conservative lay and clergy leaders had in mind as the bishops prepare to appoint the commission to study the church’s sexual ethics and preserve denominational unity.
“It is deplorable that the Western Jurisdiction, along with many annual conferences, has ignored the Council of Bishop’s proposal, ratified by the General Conference, for a ‘pause for prayer – to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God’s will for the future,’” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, in response to the Western Jurisdiction election.
“Instead, these conferences have moved ahead with legislative enactments pledging non-conformity with the Book of Discipline, culminating in the election of a practicing homosexual as bishop,” said Renfroe. “If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so.”
Matt Berryman, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said that Oliveto’s election “breaks through anti-LGBTQ law in The UMC and carries queer people to the highest levels of church leadership. Officially barred from so many churches and positions of spiritual leadership, queer persons may now see themselves as leaders of the body of Christ in the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States.”
According to the New York Times, Oliveto has performed more than 50 “holy unions” for same-sex couples. “My bishop has been very supportive of me and my wife,” Oliveto told CBS.
The Northeastern Jurisdiction passed a resolution of non-conformity regarding the church’s prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The jurisdiction also called on annual conference financial officers to state that there are no funds available to investigate complaints or conduct trials for clergy who violate the church’s teachings.
“In light of the Western and Northeastern Jurisdiction’s actions effectively renouncing their connection to the rest of global United Methodism, evangelicals and traditionalists within the church will be conferring in the next few days to agree upon responses that will acknowledge this grave breach of unity,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News. “If our covenant is no longer in force, we will be forced to live into a new reality in our denomination.”
– Good News Media