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.
Sorry, but this is exactly what they wanted when they convinced the leaders of the church to kick the can down the road. By the time that next GC is convened, the church will have either been overrrun with other “Olivetos” that they will say it doesn’t matter anymore , we are already there or the US UMC memebership will be so small that the ones who are left that still believe Jesus did not exxagerate in the Bible will be soundly told to shut up.
Thanks for taking time to comment, Jonathon. The overall direction of General Conference seems easy to discern. I encourage everyone to stay tuned and not despair. It will be a messy season, but God is in control. This move by the WJ, however, was not at all helpful to the cause of unity.
If you really believe that God is control why are acting like God had no part in the “move by the WJ”?
Thanks for the question, Jarell. My faith that God is ultimately in control does not mean that everything that happens is in accordance with God’s will. One of the great signs of division in our church is that we no longer agree on what constitutes God’s will. Blessings to you.
It’s obviously a rocky road ahead of us.! “How can two walk together where there is no agreement or little to no respect. I believe that our efforts to fight for unity is pleasing to God. But I do believe that it takes two to cultivate a relationship. Where is the line between tolerance and spiritual compromise ? Frankly all of this is becoming extremely wearisome to say the least. However, I stand in hope contending for the faith.
So, I see you implied a parallel between the ACNA and the Methodist conservatives. If the conservatives leave and form a new denomination, will the global Methodists rebuke the US Methodist Church and seek connection with new conservative denomination? The new smaller US Methodist church will not have the votes at the GC to stop it….interesting to think about.
Thanks for taking time to read and comment, Phillip. I am not at all sure that Conservatives, Traditionalists, and Evangelicals are leaving. The conservative direction of General Conference seems fairly well established. The direction of the U.S. church is much less clear. You raise an interesting question about how various alignments will develop as we transition from our present form of connectionalism to whatever is next. Many of the U.S. churches that broke up did not have the global factors that exist in United Methodism. Uncharted waters!
The move to leave will not be a move of individual churches but of people. Our trust Clause and episcopal governance masks the exodus of of people and people without power or vote in this situation will vote with their feet and wallet. The outflow is beginning and it will take a time for the reports to be filed and the numbers tabulated.
I was among thone who advocated for the love alike plan but now am among those who desire absolutely no connectional ties. It is exactly at the General Church level that everything becomes unworkable. Consider that the CoB statement today admits that among 12 million United Methodists they have no hope of finding 25 who can have a civil discussion–without being needlessly insulting or ridicously offended–without a specially trained babysitter in the room. That’s as obvious as it gets that separation is essential.
Rev. Ritter, this was well written though I do not believe the the election of Rev. Oliveto is necessarily the end of the church as we know it. I will ask the same questions I asked of Dr. Rev. David Watson (I am copying and pasting from my comment of his article).
“This is something I have not seen adequately explained, why is LGBTQ full inclusion in the life of the church different then full inclusion of those who are divorced and remarried (to another person)? In the 1930’s D&R clergy were prohibited in the life of the church. It was written in the Discipline. D&R is clearly a sexual sin in the New Testament; it is call Adultery. Clergy today are allowed to perform the second (or third) marriage ceremony for those who are divorced. D&R clergy are allowed to keep their credentials. D&R candidates are allowed to become clergy. D&R clergy are allowed to be elected as Bishops. (Dr. Watson never replied.)
Thanks for taking time to read and comment. I cannot speak for Dr. Watson, but I see a qualitative difference between a remarriage and a same sex marriage. I agree with you that divorce is a sin. Fortunately, we are not asked to bless them. The biblical witness is complex with the issue of remarriage. For instance, is the adulterer always classified as such or can they start over with faithfulness to their existing spouse? There is no such complexity with same sex relations. Jesus’ vision for marriage is beautifully depicted in Matthew 19. What the church blesses should move us toward that vision. I can’t accept the logic that says if one sin is overlooked, we must overlook the others. Of course, we are all in need of the manifold grace of God.
Thank you. Most writers haven’t replied to my question and I appreciate the time you took. I am not sure I agree but I will reflect upon your reply. I may need a more in-depth writing on this to fully understand why they are qualitatively different. Not seeing it at the moment but I will pray and reflect about it.
Rev. Ritter, in Matthew 19:9, Jesus stated that anyone who divorces his wife, EXCEPT for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. Divorce that is based on marital unfaithfulness on the part of one or both partners should not be categorized as sin but adultery remains what it is. Blessings!
Amen! I’m always amused how some focus on certain verses of the Bible, but ignore the words of Jesus when it doesn’t fit their beliefs.
I think this is a reason that most people don’t like the “organized church”. All the strife over how to interpret scripture and the invisible lines between ‘equipped by God’ and ’empowered by man’. Christ confidence vs self confidence…..
Revelation has a list of quite a few churches (none whose name we share) who were told of the things that they did right…and wrong.
We often seem to mess things up when we have so much at stake…the lives of others that God so desires that all should repent and be saved so that none should perish… Yet how often have we tried to create a better sounding path so that we could gain people’s trust in us before they even enter into that sanctification process?
There are so many denominations already…. This seems to be a sifting as each individual would go through. How often will each side call the other a heretic based on their own interpretation?
This is a time of uncertainty for a lot of folks. That is why ultimately our faith must be focused on the Person and Work of JESUS. I pray that we all would seek His will AND do it. Yet I also know He doesn’t force relationship…
I guess we are all in a season of grace
…God knows who are using the grace as a license to sin and who isn’t. Jesus told us to love all. (even our enemies) He didn’t tell us to remove Jesus from the throne and set the enemies in place. They cannot save us. He died for them as well.
While we all kinda wanna sit back and see what happens as a spectator would do…We are also told to be about our Father’s business. He didn’t create us to be lazy. All this being said as I should have been getting more ready for work. 😎😁😇 May God bless ya’ all as He is the one WHO blesses the just and the unjust. But only the narrow (not narrow minded) path enters. He doesn’t mean only anorexic folks get in either…. Lemme stop….
I am not a pastor, just a congregation member. As I watch this unfold it sickens me. Teachers will be judged more harshly on their day, that is a given. But how can I be expected to believe a teacher who is unrepentant and has betrayed the vows they took?
And as the struggle to keep things together intensifies, I look at it from the perspective of one who spent a lifetime of being a good and loyal Methodist then United Methodist only to find that when the pedal hit the metal I did not have enough understanding of who God is and who I am to make sense of things. What I now see as I look at the UMC is a spectrum of theologies that boggles the mind and left me understanding nothing in particular until I distanced myself from all things church and was finally introduced to a God worth worshiping; the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun who loves me even more than I could ever think about loving myself. My stumble into the Heidelberg Catechism and a book about it, “Body& Soul” by M. Craig Barnes was my lesson in what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity. my two immediate reactions to the experience were:1. disbelief at the amount of head knowledge the rank and file Christian from the 1600’s was given compared to the random drivel I was given. 2. A wish that somebody had told me these things before.
In another one of his books, M. Craig Barnes makes this assessment of where mainline Protestant Christianity–and that includes The UMC– has fallen short; the words in brackets are my personalization based on my lifelong experience with the Methodist/United Methodist Church:
“…Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at helping them know God as people who live with him. It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”].–M. Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”.
The sad irony in these words from a Presbyterian pastor is that he absolutely describes what it was that brought Methodism into existence: John Wesley not only did a masterful job of telling individuals about the triune God who loved them “more than they could ever think about loving themselves” (his words), he went further and helped individuals ‘know God as a people who lived with him.”
Yesterday I read the statement from the COB that gives guidance to the upcoming commission. I almost laughed when I got to this part:
“The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a united Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible….”
The underlying problem is there is no “United Methodist witness”. We lost the message and method that enabled the United Methodist Church to have a unique witness a very long time ago. Furthermore, the UMC is coming unwound on two different levels: as a denomination and at the pew level. Holding the denomination together will not address the fact that people are not beating the doors down to enter a United Methodist Church and nowhere is that more evident than in the Western Jurisdiction which has spoken on behalf of The United Methodist Church and declared that we have now stepped out into a brave new world. This is a horribly complex situation and kudos to all efforts to deal with it. I am confident that Christianity of the Methodist persuasion will survive here in America–what I am not so sure about is that The Unite Methodist Church has a place in the future of Methodism–especially when it has absolutely nothing unique to contribute to the Christian landscape.
I’m not saying don’t stop trying; but nowhere in all this does anybody raise the question “Are we done?”
Has Oliveto taken her Bishop position and receiving a paycheck?
She will assume her episcopal assignment September 1.
How will any of this impact the trust clause that so many congregations despise?… If it suspends the trust clause in any way, there will be a mass exodus of churches who no longer desire any denominational ties.
I don’t know of any plans in our denomination to suspend the Trust Clause. There were some proposals before General Conference 2016 that included this component, but nothing was approved. I would hope that all faithful United Methodists would sit tight and allow the Bishop’s Commission to be acted upon. There is talk of a special General Conference in early 2018. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I am saddened by all of this but one thing that I haven’t heard mentioned is this: what about the people who trusted their bishops to lead; are now feeling let down; and leave the church? What about those who would have become members who are now so confused they aren’t sure about their relationship with God? What about all of the people who could have come to know Jesus as their Lord during these months and possible years but are turned off by the church’s lack of putting “our money where our mouth is” – we teach that the Bible is the word of God but then our leaders and many churches aren’t following the word. Where are the conservative Bishops? Why aren’t we hearing from them. It feels like the people we trusted to lead the sheep might actually be wolves and not shepherds. And the sheep are being scattered. It breaks my heart.
I need to leave a comment that will at first seem grossly obscure and tangential to anything in the current discussion, but I hope, as a lawyer might say in answer to opposing counsel’s objection, “Your Honor, with a little latitude I will show the relevance momentarily.”
I am one who hopes that everyone concerned about our current troubles will give attention to the lessons of history, specifically the division of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. To make the record clear, let everyone understand, Bishop James Osgood Andrew was not a slaveowner. He hated slavery as much as anyone.
Bishop Andrew, like many Methodist preachers of his day, did not marry until later in life. He married a widow who had inherited some slaves as part of the estate of her first husband. Bishop Andrew and his wife, because of their warmed-heart going-on-to-perfection Methodist faith in Christ, wanted to free those slaves.
But with the growing tensions in the nation about that horrible issue, the State of Georgia had passed a law which forbade the freeing of slaves. Bishop Andrew and his wife were stuck between conscience and the compulsion of the state.
Every so often, someone tries to liken the struggle for full inclusion of persons who practice homosexual sex to the church’s division over the slavery issue. Invariably their argument is that the “progressive” position now [casting away our Scriptural prohibitions of homosexual practice] is like the “progressive” position then [standing against slavery]. WRONG! Actually, the “progressive” position in the 1800s was the acceptance of slavery, and that had been done years before 1844. The Methodist Episcopal Church had condemned slavery since its inception in 1784. The “progressives” set aside the conscience of the conservatives to accept slavery.
I once read a convincingly-articulated argument in a master’s thesis that, if the Southern Methodists had been made to never accept slavery in any form, the Methodists were a strong enough force in the country that slavery might have died a much quicker death, and without the death and suffering of the Civil War.
Setting aside conscience to accept homosexual practice more nearly resembles the pro-slavery Methodists than the anti-slavery Methodists. Both involve allowing an ungodly accommodation to the desires of the flesh.