On Bishop Oliveto

Everything I’ve ever learned about loving my LGBTQ neighbors as myself, I learned through the United Methodist CHurch. Everything I’ve learned about fully including, welcoming and valuing LGBTQ people in the church and society at large, I learned through the UMC.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) leans over to speak with her wife, Robin Ridenour (behind Oliveto) prior to a meeting of the United Methodist Judicial Council in Newark, N.J. The denomination’s top court ruled on April 28 that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law. At right is Bishop Elaine Stanovsky.

This weekend, while the church was spinning from the Judicial Council’s decision regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto, I was with the United Methodist Women training to teach Mission U this summer. There was a wild convergence of my life in the church. This convergence of representatives from my life in the church intersected with this current matter of Bishop Oliveto’s consecration to provide an internal history lesson.

I saw people from my old conference, West Virginia there. That conference raised me and is a primary lens for my understanding of life, God, home, church and morality. I remember debating in UMYF whether it was okay for a gay person to be a parent. I argued yes, while still believing homosexuality was a sin (that assumption was never challenged).

I saw an old friend from my days at the GBGM who was a US-2 and is now with the Women’s Division. She reminded me of my own US-2 experience and the richness of knowledge that era gave me regarding gay and lesbian people. I had never encountered gay people in the church, much less leaders and activists. As a US-2 I encountered an openly gay clergyman who ministered to our class during mid-term and end-term conferences. He was gentle and heartbroken over what he saw among LGBTQ students on the campus where he ministered. He shared his wisdom and Holy Communion with us. I also had to confront internal biases I didn’t even know I had. I used the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory way one time and got seriously chastised by a classmate. I had to come to grips with the fact that I conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, which I now know is a horrendous charge. I came to realize that no one ever taught me that association. I have since concluded that I picked it up at college where Christian students often harbored strident views on purity. I witnessed the struggle for acceptance among LGBT youth where I served as a US-2. Another classmate debunked my immature understanding of genetics and sexuality. My classmates were an amazing bunch on many levels. On this matter, I am deeply humbled that they received and accepted me as their friend while I struggled to understand. I’m now 20 years older and I don’t see that happen very often.

I saw another friend at Mission U training who went with me when I lived in the UK for a year through the Time for God program. While there, I encountered for the first time a transgender woman in church. The congregation’s gentleness with her was natural and easy and a great lesson in acceptance for me. The pastor at the time was a very caustic personality in a very demanding church that had both extraordinarily gracious people and extraordinarily petty critics. Regarding the transgendered woman, the pastor displayed immense understanding and patience, even compassion. He was aware of how this woman was likely treated in many aspects of society and yet was at church regularly in search of God. I clashed often with that pastor. But his lesson on compassion to trans persons has stuck with me. My Time for God friend later joined that US-2 program while I headed to the GBGM. The GBGM was full of committed, gracious, non-straight Christian people operating this amazingly fruitful wing of the church. It was also during my time at the GBGM that I witnessed someone “come out” for the first time. I saw how painful and courageous such a confession could be. I also saw how the church itself-this thing I loved so much-was the sole source of this young person’s pain. Ironically, the church had grown me so much that I was able to see the dissonance of these two truths about the church: it could raise amazing servants of God AND it was perfectly willing to cast aside those servants based on an outdated, immature and ultimately false view of humanity and sexuality.

While with the UMW this weekend, we also sang a hymn by Mark Miller, professor of Sacred Music at Drew Theological School. Mark was commissioning the organ in Seminary Hall when I visited as a prospective student. We studied a lot of liberation theologies at Drew. Mark shared with one class his story of being a gay United Methodist. He shared about the overwhelming graciousness of his dad when he came out. He shared about being at General Conference as an openly gay United Methodist There were other LGBT faculty members at Drew who were each amazing scholars in their fields. Drew was where my ideas and beliefs about sexuality were finally deconstructed. Debating scripture, tradition, experience and reason with some of the best theological minds has proven to be fruitful training. It was while at Drew that Judicial Council decision 1032 came down. That decision stated that a pastor could deny membership to a person based solely on their sexual orientation. I recall an emergency meeting of UM students and the electricity in the air over 1032. I immediately recalled the story of Bishop Elijah Jones, who was a clergyman when the Methodist Episcopal church split over slavery. Jones was pastoring a black north church in New Orleans. When his DS came to visit, the DS who was white had to lodge with a white ME South clergyman in town. Jones’ decision to stay in the church has stayed with me. Why should I give ‘my church’ up to the forces of exclusion?

Furthermore, we sang another song that was arranged by Jorge Lockward. I had worked with Jorge at the GBGM. Jorge was the musician and worship leader for Annual Conference in WV after I had returned as a clergyperson. Jorge was well received and immensely effective. He was slated to lead another event when his sexual orientation was discovered. A controversy arose and many calls were made to rescind his invitation or boycott the event. I remember defending his ministry at a clergy picnic. We attended the event. Every time Jorge arose to lead a hymn, a section of people would leave. There was room in the church for adulterers, but not a homosexual. Also as a clergyperson in WV, I encountered numerous parents of gay and lesbian children and saw the agony they experienced from the church through their children. I heard the vitriol toward LGBTQ people at Annual Conference. It was after I had decided to move west that I finally was open about wanting LGBTQ people to be fully included in church and society.

Then, I met people from Oregon, where I served as pastor for 1 year. That church, Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church in Portland, OR was the only reconciling church I’ve served. They were quite small at the time but were quite active in RUMs: Reconciling United Methodists of Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. RUMNs held their annual meeting at Sunnyside on “What is trans?” a seminar educating people of issues relating to transgendered people. I was impressed with how in flux the matter is. Nevertheless, trans people have their own difficulties and their own need for grace. And yet, the church is a primary source of exclusion. I saw at Sunnyside an immense dedication to living faithfully and living out the Micah 5:8 charge to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Finally, I was part of a contingency from my current conference, the Pacific Northwest. I serve a long-standing congregation who dedicates itself to serving the poor. This issue of sexuality in the church seems likely to demand a stance from us soon. Part of our contingency is the former pastor of Orchards, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I see her current work in ecumenical circles and see the beauty of the church at its best: understanding, intelligent, truthful, just and peaceful. I see our conference trying earnestly to do justly by our LGBTQ neighbors. I see us on the wrong end of church history, perhaps having to endure a period not unlike what Elijah Jones endured: cut off, ostracized and belittled based on the color of one’s sexuality. I’m not resigned to this fate, but I am prepared for it.

In the end, I can see why Bishop Oliveto was elected. She has been an amazingly fruitful minister of the gospel for a long time. She has been openly gay for a long time. It’s notable that no one has questioned the quality of her ministry. No one questions if she loves her partner. All of those deep down spiritual matters are beyond reproach. All that’s left are matters of ‘legality’, wrapped in church-lawyer language.

At some point, perhaps in the not so distant future, it seems likely that all United Methodists will have to choose where they stand on these matters. Each jurisdiction will ask each conference which will ask each congregation which will ask each member and clergyperson to state their place in the debate. It seems like the time for honest reckoning is approaching. When that time comes, this personal history of the church’s lessons on what is right and wrong for LGBTQ people will carry my own position.

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