Karen Oliveto

Lesbian bishop war: Yes, United Methodists are debating status of sexually active LGBT clergy

Lesbian bishop war: Yes, United Methodists are debating status of sexually active LGBT clergy

As your GetReligionistas have said many times, reporters do not have to agree with the doctrines and laws of groups that they cover. Journalists must, however, strive to be accurate when covering what religious people and groups believe.

Basic accuracy is a journalistic virtue, even when reporters are writing for advocacy publications that are not committed to balance, fairness and showing respect for believers on both sides of hot-button issues in public life.

So the other day I wrote about the major New York Times piece describing developments in United Methodist Church battles over LGBT rights -- specifically the election of an openly lesbian bishop who is married to her same-sex partner. The Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco was elected in the church's tiny (2 percent of the global church) Western Jurisdictional Conference.

The Times piece did a good job of letting readers hear from leaders on both sides. However, the report also claimed that United Methodist law bans the ordination of all gays, when in reality it rejects the ordination of gays who, in word and deed, openly reject church teachings.

As I said in that post, this is a fine line, but a crucial one -- in doctrine. I requested a correction. United Methodists law forbids the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” gays and lesbians as clergy. The assumption is that there are also some gays and lesbians who affirm, and follow, church teachings that sex outside of traditional Christian marriage is sin.

This brings me to a follow-up report by Religion News Service -- "United Methodist groups divided after election of first LGBT bishop" -- that demonstrates what some accurate language looks like in practice, when covering this story. It's actually pretty simple, as in:

On Friday (July 15), the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and consecrated the following day.
The election comes despite the denomination’s ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

In other words, this policy bans the ordination -- as pastors and then, obviously, bishops -- of gays and lesbians who are sexually active in the context of same-sex relationships.

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After crucial ruling against an openly lesbian bishop, what now for United Methodists?

After crucial ruling against an openly lesbian bishop, what now for United Methodists?

In recent years, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline Protestant world have not been making as much news as they have in the past, at least as evidenced in the annual "top stories" polls conducted by the Religion News Assocition.

However, it’s likely that 2017’s  religion story of the year will be the April 28 United Methodist Church (UMC) ruling that the western region improperly consecrated Karen Oliveto as a bishop and she should be removed. Reason: as an openly married lesbian, she violated church law and her ordination vows.

That Judicial Council edict produced typically sure-footed stories by The Religion Guy’s former AP colleague Rachel Zoll (The San Francisco Chronicle ran wire copy even though Oliveto led a big local church!) and Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times (a rare treat that this fine, neglected scribe gets 34 inches atop A18!). United Methodist News’s Linda Bloom was a must-read (maxim: always check such official outlets plus independent caucuses left and right.)  

Jennifer Brown’s Denver Post spot story and walkup report were appropriately comprehensive, since Bishop Oliveto supervises five states from an office in suburban Denver. “Whatever the ruling, the expectation is that the denomination may divide,” Brown reported, noting that Methodism’s last split, over slavery, took 95 years to heal.

The media mostly overlooked another important Judicial Council decision. Reviewing Illinois and New York disputes, it reaffirmed that ordained or appointed clergy must observe “fidelity in marriage” or “celibacy in singleness.”

The UMC has long upheld traditional belief on sex and marriage shared among the nation’s five biggest denominations (with more than 100 million members). Groups shifting in conscience to favor same-sex clergy and marriage, e.g. Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), exist only within the U.S. But at UMC policy-setting General Conferences the U.S. has only 58 percent of delegates, with 30 percent from Africa and 12 percent from elsewhere. In Protestantism worldwide, liberal change is largely limited to predominantly white “Mainline” churches in western Europe and North America.

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Correction please: The New York Times struggles with a fine detail in United Methodist law

Correction please: The New York Times struggles with a fine detail in United Methodist law

For decades, United Methodists managed to live together in semi-peace by using a simple plan -- they lived in different places. This allowed them to ordain pastors and elect bishops who took radically different approaches to doctrine and church law.

This was explained, back in the mid-1980s, in a prophetic study called "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."

The cutting-edge on the progressive future was found in Denver, in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and the Iliff School of Theology. If would-be United Methodist pastors disagreed with the church they could go West, and many did. In the late-1980s, a gay youth minister at Iliff told me (I was at The Rocky Mountain News) that she estimated 40 percent of the student body, perhaps even 50 percent, was gay.

This reality first hit the headlines in 1980 when Denver Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., announced that he was openly rejecting church teachings that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Soon, he appointed an openly gay pastor to a Denver church. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

All of this is highly relevant to understanding the tensions laid out in that New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "Methodist High Court Rejects First Openly Gay Bishop’s Consecration."

But before we get there, we need to look at one other detail in the early Denver cases that remains important for reporters who want to do accurate coverage of the UMC debates in the here and now.

That Denver pastor survived in ministry, in part, because the church law opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Thus, when appearing before church officials, he simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. He was, therefore, not “self-avowed” -- at least not during official church meetings. Sympathetic leaders in the West declared that he was not in violation of the larger church’s doctrinal standards. It didn't matter what the man said in newspaper interviews.

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