The Stones Cry Out

Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in The United Methodist Church, kneels during the consecration service held on July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo by Patrick Scriven, Pacific-Northwest Conference
Bishop Karen Oliveto kneels during her consecration at the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church.

And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 16:39-40)

Who knew the last straw would be a study commission?

The United Methodist Church has been struggling with sexual diversity in the ministry since 1972. In that year, the General Conference (the quadrennial meeting that decides all matters of polity for the denomination) first amended the Discipline (the denominational rule book) to forbid ordination of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals." Since then, generations of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry have been forced to remain closeted for their entire careers; to lie to to their congregations, superintendents, and bishops; to carefully avoid using certain terminology with church officials who are sympathetic, but adhering to the letter of the law; to openly disobey the Discipline, and face the consequences; or, with the cooperation of church officials who are, themselves, defying the Discipline, to openly live and work under the shadow of eventual prosecution by colleagues zealously defending the rule of church law. They've done this as their advocates have fought, conference after conference, to remove or alter the language that singles them out for special persecution, to no avail, for the conservative regions of the denomination simply have more votes.

I've been arguing for years--since long before I left the ministry in 2000, in fact--that sticking with the process and waiting for the church to evolve an open mind was never going to work. Even as American secular culture has experienced a great awakening to the acceptance and affirmation of sexual diversity, United Methodism has been solidifying its opposition to this trend, while simultaneously embracing the ironic slogan "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors." In the mid-2000s, I wrote a novel about the struggle, in which my characters (and through them, me) came to the conclusion that it would take widespread acts of ecclesial disobedience, and very likely eventual schism, to bring about the change that has to happen if Methodism is going to survive the 21st century.

This is the dilemma the whole church faced two months ago, as the General Conference convened right here in Portland, Oregon. The opposing forces were gearing up for a showdown that could have led to a mass walkout. Instead, the conference punted, delegating the question to the Council of Bishops, calling on them to set up yet another study commission on how to deal with the perennial question of "What shall we do with the gays?" I say "yet another" because the UMC has been using studies to pacify its left and right wings at least since the 1980s, referring the matter to local churches for discussion, hoping the extremists will either cool their tempers or drift away to churches that better suit them with their more or less inclusive polities and theology. The denomination has been able to get away with this because Methodists are, by and large, centrists, good, well-meaning people who can go on loving their more extreme fellow believers just so long as they don't make too big a stink.


The center has held, but it won't for much longer. Throughout the Obama administration, sexual diversity has made leaps and bounds in its acceptance by mainstream Americans. As much as the church may be growing in more conservative Africa, it is still an American denomination, and because of that, there can be no denying that minds and hearts and, yes, doors are opening across great swathes of the church. Setting up another study was never going to appease the United Methodists of the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions who have been ignoring the Discipline's bans on both ordination and marriage of same-gender oriented persons at least since the last General Conference. Last week, as Jurisdictional Conferences met to elect and appoint Bishops, three self-avowed, practicing, and very much out of the closet gay clergy ran for the church's highest office. One of them, the Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco's Glide Memorial UMC, was elected.

I've heard Rev. Oliveto preach. She's powerful in the pulpit, a gifted church leader with a prophetic voice. She's also a married lesbian. She'll be a fine administrator in her new assignment as Bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences, and a great asset to the Council of Bishops--at least until the South Central Jurisdiction succeeds in its bid to have her consecration overturned by the Judicial Council.

Because that's what they're trying. As has always been the case in these matters, it's not the congregation of the gay pastor or the pastor performing a lesbian wedding who presses the issue, but some external meddler seeking to protect the greater church from the sin of progressivism. The South Central Jurisdiction filed its request for a declaratory decision with the Judicial Council (the denomination's supreme court) within days of Bishop Oliveto's consecration. At the same time, the conservative Confessing Movement called on the Council of Bishops to oppose Oliveto's consecration, to expedite implementation of the study commission, and to set a date for a special session of the General Conference to either again reject sexually diverse ministry or to finally draw up a plan for schism.

I don't see any way for the denomination to avoid the latter option. Gay pastors and gay couples have grown old, retired, and died waiting for the church to open its heart to their humanity and witness. The conferences that have been ordaining them and celebrating their weddings are not going back. At the same time, the conservative Methodists of the Midwest, Southeast, and Africa are nowhere near ready to accept such a change. When the special conference meets, the two sides will duke it out. They may try to pray it out, but there's really no compromise to be had.

American Methodism took on the name "United" in 1966, when it merged with the Evangelical United Brethren, though the ideal of unity went back to 1939 and the reunion of the northern and southern Methodist denominations. Since 1972, the price of unity has been the silence, under penalty of defrocking, of a significant minority of clergypersons. Once schism comes, the smaller denominations that affirm non-normative sexual identity will finally enjoy the unity of diversity--as opposed to the unity of dogmatic adherence to church law.

Whatever those new churches look like, I hope none of them cling to the name "United." If anything, I expect it will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth, as it has in mine for a good long time.

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