by Chris Ritter
The long-awaited Judicial Council ruling related to Bishop Oliveto has arrived. As I expected, the decision leaves her in office. Our highest court is loathe to take on duties assigned by our Discipline to others. It was always very unlikely her election would be vacated by a court ruling. Instead, the relevant officers of her jurisdiction were ordered to handle the matter according to the due process outlined in our rules. I expect this process will play out as slowly as possible over the next year or so.
The decision on the status of Bishop Oliveto is not the most interesting thing that happened last Friday. The entire landscape of the human sexuality debate in our church changed overnight. Here are things that are different now.
#1 We now have a new definition of “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” that is in effect church-wide.
The old definition was so narrow as to be practically useless for the purpose of accountability. For a person to meet the definition, the accused would need to voluntarily talk to their bishop or district superintendent about the genital contact they were having with a person of the same sex. I will let you guess how often that happened. Any investigation (as in the case of Rev. Amy Delong) could legitimately be met with “none of your business.”
The earlier narrow definition allowed all sorts of things to develop over time. When over a hundred gay clergy announced themselves before General Conference 2016, many people in the church wondered how these folks were ordained given that the non-celibate among them are barred from being received as candidates for ministry. In reality, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been operable in some quarters of the church for a long time. That is why we now have a Queer Clergy Caucus.
Those representing Bishop Oliveto actually made the case that the fact that she is married to a woman served as no proof the two are “practicing.” The Judicial Council disagreed. The public record of a marriage licence is now adequate documentation to establish a violation of our Discipline. Overreach on the part of the Western Jurisdiction has resulted in a new situation for all gay clergy in the UMC.
No matter what your opinion on this, here are three troubling things to consider:
a) Disobedient gay clergy who live unmarried in a same sex relationship are less likely to encounter a church trial than disobedient gay clergy in a civil marriage. The new definition does nothing in cases like that of Rev. Cynthia Meyer who announced from the pulpit that she is a lesbian and living with another woman. Because the two were cohabitating and not married to each other, the new documentary evidence of self-avowal does not apply.
b) Same sex marriage licenses have become smoking guns. They will be used in a new set of trials that were previously impossible due to an unattainable burden of proof. Say what you want about same-sex marriage, but the LGBTQI community treasures their wedding licences as symbols of the rights afforded to them by the Obergefell decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. This is horrible publicity for the church and burns bridges for the Gospel.
c) Calls for restraint will ring hollow. At General Conference 2016, the Commission On a Way Forward was created with the hope that both sides would exercise restraint while the church works deliberately through the issues at hand. Weeks later, the Western Jurisdiction elected an openly gay bishop. This was viewed by many as the raising a large middle finger to the group discernment processes of our church. Bishops are general superintendents of the global church and their salaries are provided through the money all United Methodist congregations pay into the denomination. Progressives who celebrated Bishop Oliveto’s election have lost any moral high ground in the area of maintaining church unity. Restraint was thrown out the window on their side of the car. I pray cooler heads now prevail.
And now on to the second big change Friday’s decisions made church-wide…
#2. Boards of ordained ministry have to ask all the questions.
In Judicial Council Decision 1343 the court declared that conference boards of ordained ministry cannot shirk their duty to inquire into the lifestyle of candidates for ordination based on all of the qualifications in the Book of Discipline… including matters of sexual practice. Several annual conferences (Baltimore-Washington, Pacific Northwest, New York, Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois to name a few) had announced that they would no longer inquire into the sexuality of candidates coming before them. The Judicial Council now says they must.
Candidates for ordained ministry will want to make sure they were examined in keeping with the Book of Discipline. When ordinands are brought before the clergy session at annual conference for the final vote, anyone there can ask the board of ordained ministry whether the candidates have been fully and properly examined. If not, the bishop can be asked for a ruling as to whether the candidates are properly before the body. Correct answer per the April 28 ruling: No. Theoretically, every candidate’s ordination would be deferred until they receive the proper vetting. If a board of ordained ministry doesn’t do their job according to the Book of Discipline, every ordination may be delayed in that conference.
All the above is analysis on my part, not a prescription for the future. The overreach of the Western Jurisdiction has led to a much more treacherous landscape than we have ever trod before. The tightening of standards comes as the U.S. church is in the throws of widespread disagreement. Tremendous urgency is now created for the conceptual new form of unity that is being discussed. Members of the Commission on a Way Forward are in my prayers. My suggestion to them would be something in the neighborhood of a generous autonomous status for annual conferences that cannot abide by the UM Discipline. These autonomous conferences would be free to adjust their own borders and encouraged to swap congregations with traditional conferences so that lasting peace can be attained. As with the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, much of the workings of the general church could be shared so that a modicum of Methodist unity may be retained.
Quarelling, fighting, brawling, taking one another to civil courts, and speaking evil of one another are all listed in our General Rules as actions Methodists must avoid in order to be faithful to scripture. Let’s now review the options before us and get on our knees for those who have been selected to recommend a Way Forward, and for the Council of Bishops to which the Commission will report. Our bishops are meeting now as this post is published.