by Chris Ritter
Those of us working on United Methodist unity were dealt a major setback earlier this month with the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto. The new bishop, recognized as a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” was consecrated by the Western Jurisdiction in defiance of that fact that she contradicts denominational clergy standards in both word and example.
Bishops are “general superintendents” of the church. Although they are elected in regional bodies (central or jurisdictional conferences), they lead the entire global church. Their salaries are paid out of the Episcopal Fund, underwritten by every apportionment-paying United Methodist congregation. Bishops are supposed to be a sign of church unity. This new one is another sign of our deep divisions. There is currently in play a request by the South Central Jurisdiction for a declaratory decision by our high court that may directly affect the election.
Consider some history:
Methodism has fractured many times, but it only split once: 1844. The issue then, as now, was the moral status of a bishop. News that Bishop James Osgood Andrew was a slaveholder sent many in the Methodist Episcopal Church into alarm. The result was the longest General Conference in Methodist history where it was ruled that Bishop Andrew should not exercise his office as long as his slaveholding persisted: “It was utterly impossible to leave Bishop Andrew in his present relation without doing great injury to the Church.”*
The 1844 conference rejected a proposal by the bishops to defer any action for another four years and, in the meantime, voluntarily divide the general superintendency north and south so the church could remain together. General Conference instead approved a plan of separation. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South was conceived the very next day and an 1845 date was set for an organizational convention. The split was designed to be amicable. A delegate from the North was seated at the convention as a sign of solidarity. However, fighting soon began over property, especially the lucrative publishing concerns of the church. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the claims of the southern church.
Parallels are also being drawn with the 2003 election of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. This move contributed greatly to the “Anglican Realignment” and the various groups that left the Episcopal Church at that time eventually merged to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009. Today the ACNA is in full communion with the global Anglican Communion while the Episcopal Church is currently suspended from participation. [An interesting study is to retrace the 2,000 year history of church schism and note how often a particular divisive bishop or patriarch stood at the heart of the issue.]
Not only is Oliveto’s election the same sort of move that has historically caused division, the decision also compounds the trust deficit that has been frustrating negotiations. It is hard to make a new covenant with those who have demonstrated they are very willing to break covenant as it suits them. A plan was approved by General Conference 2016 for the Council of Bishops to form a commission to work on our problems. In the meantime, the church was advised by the approved plan to practice restraint. This hardly seems like restraint. Remember that the bishops’ plan was approved as an alternative to the almost certain passage of new disciplinary measures aimed at enforcing our existing rules. All proposals to loosen our standards on human sexuality failed decisively in committee. The direction of General Conference is directly at odds with the direction of several U.S. annual conferences. General Conference has the power to remove bishops it finds unacceptable, but the jurisdictions have the power to keep electing bishops of their own choosing.
There is potential for continued harm and rancor. There is now also severely diminished potential for unity.
Think about the plans that were floated to General Conference 2016 for saving the church: The Hamilton Plan (the Local Option), the Connectional Table Plan, the Love Alike Plan, and the Jurisdictional Solutions. Most of these are now off the table. They simply are not adequate for holding the church together in light of the new reality. One moderate pastor called me this week and expressed what many are feeling: “It was one thing when we were talking about looking the other way when a pastor officiated a same-sex wedding. This, however, is on a whole new scale.”
I authored Love Alike Plan assuming that bishops would continue to live by the standards in the Book of Discipline. It is dead as an option unless Oliveto resigns (as she has been called upon to do). The Organic Jurisdictional Solution, too, will not work given the Western Jurisdiction’s move. Most plans for church unity gave greater freedom at the lower levels of our church and assumed those in our highest office would live a lifestyle affirmed by the entire church.
The Western Jurisdiction’s election takes us decisively away from a one-tent model. Many of us had been working on a compartmentalized tent, but that door seems to have almost closed. What is left is the concept of separate tents with some sort of connecting point between them. One discussion is to allow U.S. conferences to become “affiliate autonomous” Methodist bodies with concordant agreements that would allow them to continue to share in some agencies of the general church. We currently allow this outside the U.S. It seems like this option could be extended to U.S. conferences without constitutional change. Many Progressives, however, seem to want neither to be accountable to our global church or to separate from it.
Bishop Oliveto’s election also thwarts efforts to find hope for unity under the rubric of a global denominational restructure. Plans for a single “U.S. Central Conference” will be futile as the U.S. is hopelessly divided and the needed constitutional measures would require super-majority global support for passage and ratification that simply does not exist. Fashioning our five jurisdictional conferences and seven central conferences as twelve separate regional covenant-making bodies under a thin global Discipline would be complicated by the recent need for different episcopal standards. Separate episcopates means separate churches.
Whatever the eventual shape of our Methodist tent(s), the election of Bishop Oliveto was a watershed moment in the life of the UMC. As a solution-seeker, it is difficult not to be discouraged. The Church, however, belongs to Jesus. I affirm the Council of Bishops’ recent decision to expedite the formation of their commission and their indication that a special General Conference is to be called to consider the recommendations. In the meantime, I am joining a new organization that advocates for unity through covenant faithfulness. More on this later. I have also joined PrayUMC, an effort to lift up coordinated prayer for our church each Monday.
Buckle your chin straps, United Methodists. It is going to be a bumpy ride.
*History of the Great Succession from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Year 1845 by Charles Elliott (1855), p.299.