To Bishop KO with Love

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Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is NOT an individual respondent in next week’s Judicial Council cases, with my daughter and me in March.

Next week, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church will rule on cases concerning out LGBTQ clergy in the denomination. While the outcome of these cases will certainly have a huge impact on the global UMC, no matter what that outcome is, I’m distressed by the mischaracterization of what the cases address.

The Judicial Council is NOT ruling on whether or not Bishop Oliveto can be a Bishop. It is NOT ruling on whether or not gay and lesbian pastors can be ordained. It is NOT acting upon a complaint against Bishop Karen, or the against the individual clergy people ordained by the New York Annual Conference or the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. And it is most definitely NOT creating new rules or regulations that will bind the church.

For people who support The UMC official policy that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained or appointed as clergy (spoiler alert: this is not my position), I imagine this is a frustrating moment. For over forty years, the denomination’s legislative body, the General Conference, has codified this discrimination in our rule book, the Book of Discipline. But making legislation is not the same thing as living out ministry. As it turns out, proving that anyone is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is all but impossible. Defining marriage– both a civil and a religious institution– gets complicated, and only serves to demonstrate that marital status is not the same as a person’s sexuality, no matter how much the heterosexist patriarchy would like to think it is.

And meanwhile, while the Discipline and its supporters have spent countless dollars and hours trying to tighten and clarify restrictions, queer United Methodists have been busy doing shocking things. Like preaching and teaching. Visiting people in homes and hospitals. Baptizing and burying. Celebrating eucharist and journeying with siblings in Christ through life milestones. Being the people of the church.

And since LGBTQ United Methodists are doing these things, they– we– are also doing them in leadership. As lay leaders, deaconesses, home missioners, pastors, candidates, elders, deacons, yes, even bishops. And when it comes time to evaluate and discern leadership in the Body, a curious thing happens: congregations, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and whole Jurisdictional Conferences are evaluating and discerning a person’s gifts and graces for a particular ministry on the basis of that ministry. Not on the basis of that person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or other personal characteristic that is not at all a part of their gifts and graces for ministry. Scandalous.

So, in New York Annual Conference, for example, the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry discerned the gifts and graces for ministry as ordained elders for several individuals, some of whom happen to be queer and some of whom do not. They rightly stated that the sexual orientation of the individual was not a relevant factor to discern a person’s gifts and graces for ministry. Likewise, in the Western Jurisdiction, the voting members discerned the gifts and graces for ministry as a Bishop in Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, a elder in good standing in The United Methodist Church. They rightly determined that Bishop Karen’s sexual orientation is not a relevant factor in determining if she will be a good Bishop. Because it turns out that how we live as Christ’s people in ministry and service matters, and that people will know we are Christ’s people by our love and service. Not by our sexual orientation.

But this is wrong! cry the supporters of the current policy. And to try to stop the natural outpouring of good, loving, faith-building ministry that is happening while people also happen to be queer, they request judicial rulings on the legality and constitutionality of the processes used by the voting bodies to ordain elders and deacons or to elect and consecrate bishops. 

That’s what is before Judicial Council next week. Not people. Processes. Did the Western Jurisdiction follow the correct process in electing a particular person, who was eligible for nomination and election, as Bishop? Did the Board of the Northern Illinois Conference exercise its own legitimate authority to evaluate candidates for ministry by the standards that are set by the denomination and the Board?

Quite frankly, I think the Judicial Council would have to violate several (United Methodist) Constitutional and polity principles in order to find these bodies in error. It would have to take up the task of legislating and punishing, rather than adjudicating. But I have seen the terrifying might of homophobia in this church. It’s possible that that power will prevail, and the Council will rule procedures to be improper. Then a whole new series of procedural questions would begin, because undoing ministry and life together is not as easy or as quick as making a Judicial ruling.

Oh, there will be personal consequences and fall-out for these procedural decisions, no mistake. There will be new struggles to journey through, and we will continue to fight whatever new injustices arise. But the Judicial Council is not ruling on the calling, the gifts and graces, the God-given beauty and love and ministry, of these beloved servants. That matter was settled long ago. And Bishop Karen and my colleagues in New York and Illinois know it, to the tips of their toes. Nothing will take that away.