The Case of Bishop Karen Oliveto

bishop karen oliveto

Oliveto and wife before meeting of Judicial Council

Last week the Judicial Council ruled on the case of United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop, who is married to Robin Ridenour, a deaconess in the California-Nevada conference (deacons work in specialized forms of church ministry). Rev. Oliveto had been serving as pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (a church with a significant number of LGBTQ members) when she was elected last summer as a bishop and appointed to serve the Mountain Sky episcopal area, which covers the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Conferences. Her election was immediately met by objections, particularly by United Methodists from the South Central and Southeast jurisdictions, which culminated in the case before the Judicial Council. News media reported widely on the unfolding story, but there was much less reporting about the outcome, perhaps because many were not quite sure what to make of it. Here is a brief explanation of the case.

The United Methodist Church is organized in a way similar to the US government; we have an executive branch—the bishops, a judicial branch—the Judicial Council, and a legislative branch—the General Conference, a representative body that meets every four years and establishes our church rules, which are contained in a book called the Discipline. The Discipline currently states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and therefore “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as ministers.” The rules also bar pastors from performing gay weddings. At the same time, the Discipline calls upon United Methodists not to discriminate, to treat all persons as “individuals of sacred worth,” and “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.” Overall, the Discipline says, “We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Our church has a divided mind on questions related to human sexuality.

Every four years, there is an effort at General Conference to change the rules in order to move to a position where the church would affirm gay marriage (and thus affirm the ordination of pastors such as Karen Oliveto). Recent votes indicate that a majority of American United Methodists would favor this change. But Americans make up only 60% of the church. One-third of United Methodists are in our African conferences, and the African churches tend to be conservative on the issue of homosexuality. Their vote has tipped the scale in favor of retaining the current position, although the vote has been close. At the last General Conference, the decision was made to hold a special General Conference in 2019, with the sole aim of resolving the current impasse on the whole issue of homosexuality.

Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected Rev. Oliveto at its last jurisdictional conference, in July of 2016. Our denomination is divided up into regions called jurisdictions, and each jurisdiction holds a jurisdictional conference every four years, the main purpose of which is to elect bishops. The great majority of United Methodists in the Western Jurisdiction, which includes the Rocky Mountain and west coast states, favor the approval of gay marriage and the ordination of gay pastors. Rev. Oliveto was enthusiastically elected bishop.

The South Central Jurisdictional delegation (representing the Texas to Nebraska region) objected and called upon the Judicial Council to nullify Bishop Oliveto’s election. The Judicial Council does not decide what the church rules ought to be; it only can decide whether a particular decision or action is in line with church rules. The plaintiffs argued that the election was in violation of the Discipline. The Western Jurisdiction argued that since, according to the Discipline, jurisdictions have the authority to elect bishops, the Western Jurisdictional Conference can elect whomever its delegates choose. In the end, the Judicial Council ruled against Bishop Oliveto, declaring that “it is not lawful for any jurisdictional conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.” Nevertheless, because bishops are appointed by the jurisdictions, the Judicial Council referred her case back to the Western Jurisdiction, and it is now up to the Western Jurisdiction to take action regarding her status. For now, she remains an active bishop.

Meanwhile, the Council of Bishops has announced that the date has been set for the special General Conference; it will be held in February 2019. There is a group called “The Commission on a Way Forward,” which is working on a set of proposals to be considered. At the General Conference, we will have a delegation representing East Ohio United Methodist churches.

So where does our local church stand in all this? We hold firm to one clear principle—we welcome everyone, and we do not pass judgment on one another. This means that we fully welcome gay singles and gay couples into our church. It also means that we fully welcome all people into our church no matter what opinion they hold on issues such as gay marriage or the ordination of gay pastors or the election of gay bishops. You can be on either side of these issues, and know that you will not be ostracized or condemned for expressing your opinion. We thus seek to achieve something that currently is quite rare in America—to be a community where people on both sides of controversial issues can talk together, can respect each other, can learn from each other and can share in a loving fellowship even within a diversity of opinions. So we aim to embody the words of John Wesley—“Let all opinions alone on one side and the other. If your heart is as my heart—if you love God and all humanity—give me your hand.”

Click here for additional perspectives on this important moment for our church.

About the Author
Dr. David A. Palmer has been the senior pastor at the United Methodist Church of Kent since 1995. He has a B.A. from Wittenberg University, a Master of Divinity from Duke University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary. A native of Wooster, Ohio, he has served three other churches in east Ohio before coming to Kent. He and his wife, Mavis, have three children.
  1. Bill Anderson Reply

    I think the Methodiist church is becoming far to liberal.

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