I sit every week with the intent of engaging the news and current events of the world with the Word of God in a manner that is helpful to people within the congregation that I shepherd as pastor. This week there are so many pieces of news that deserve attention. I am writing about one, in particular, that is causing much anxiety to some of our people.
On Friday, July 15, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, pastor of the Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco, was elected as a Bishop at the Western Jurisdictional Conference. The next day she was consecrated and assigned to serve as a Bishop to four conferences that include churches in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Rev. Oliveto has been described as “an openly lesbian clergyperson”, as she married her partner last October. This election raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity. Many people believe that her election is not permissible by our agreed-upon polity, specifically as found in ¶304.3 where it deals with the Qualifications for Ordination,
The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
There is already a legal request within our UMC’s system of appeals that the Judicial Council would rule on whether her election is within order. That ruling could come in October. Beyond that, the General Conference will possibly re-convene in a special session as soon as 2018 to act on a report around how to move forward, in light of this and other non-compliance and significant differences within our denomination around how to interpret the Scriptures.
I have shared with many people in the past two months that my personal prayer, repeated often as I traveled to General Conference in May as a delegate for the first time, was that I would do no harm. This was the first of John Wesley's General Rules for the Church from the 1700's, and it's value is timeless today. I sit to write about events within the larger story of the United Methodist Church with these same words repeating in my heart: do no harm.
The UMC has engaged in a conversation on sexuality for over four decades now. Many would consider our debate as having been more civil and more Christ-like that those held in other denominations during the same stretch of time. I think that is largely due to our never-wavering conviction to uphold the Scriptures while also seeking to care for all persons. One primary way this is lived out is through statements within our Book of Discipline - our church's constitution and book of policy and law that is amended every four years at General Conference. In ¶161, a section of our beliefs on Human Sexuality, we state,
We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. It goes on to say that, We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
We are talking about practice, and not orientation. The Bible says nothing about orientation. There are references in the Bible to same-gender sexual behavior, and all of them are undeniably negative. There was no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality.’ So it is not correct to say the Bible calls ‘being homosexual’ a sin; it is always referring to practice.
Obviously these are difficult words for most people to read. Every person knows someone, probably someone close, that differs with whatever is your stance on sexuality. Those differences are certainly found within the membership of the UMC, a global movement of 12 million people from countless cultures and nations. I imagine that is what prompted the Holy Spirit to open my bible on the morning I started writing this to...
Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. - Matthew 7:1-5
I am not suggesting we don’t speak the truth in love. I am simply pointing us back to love. We are not to engage our brother or sister about the small object in their life until we have dealt with the objects in our own: remembering that Jesus knew the objects/issues/sins in our lives were often larger than we would ever want to admit. We can do harm to others if we have not dealt with our own objects/issues/sins. It is biblically wise to slow down and pray for the Spirit’s guidance.
Our own Bishop James King wrote about this in a Pastoral Letter last weekend:
Dear Beautiful People of the South Georgia Conference, we are in a season where it is difficult to find people who are not anxious about the future, angry about the status quo, or generally find it difficult to have a deep sense of peace and joy about life. There is confusion, pain, and grief all around us. I know many of you have questions about the action taken by the Western Jurisdiction in electing an openly gay bishop. Indeed, this election raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity. Our Book of Discipline has clearly delineated processes in place for resolving issues even as complex and unprecedented as this election. The South Central Jurisdiction was still in session when the election took place. They approved a resolution requesting a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage (is) lawful under The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.” ....In a world where there is so much uncertainty, you can be in control of you and believe that God will take care of you because His certain and predictable love never ends. I encourage you to stay focused on Jesus Christ and on our love for one another as Christ loves us. I ask you to join me in prayer as we strive to faithfully and compassionately fulfill our covenant with God, the church, and one another.
I believe God’s Spirit is at work to bring healing and to show us a way forward. I am open to how God works. Echoing the words of Bishop Ken Carter, who grew up in South Georgia, “Patience is a fruit of that same spirit....I can wait on and work with God. We are not yet perfect, but I plan to hang in there. I hope you will be there, too.”
Grace and peace, Scott