There is a civil war brewing within the Methodist Church over whether or not Karen Oliveto’s unanimous July election to bishop by the Western Jurisdiction will be sustained or overturned — and with the decision comes the potential to split the denomination. Karen Oliveto is the church’s first openly gay bishop.
The Methodist Church’s General Conference is composed of 1,000 delegates — half clergy and half non-clergy. The General Conference, which officially speaks for the church as a whole and sets policy, has upheld language — dating back to 1972 — that defines same-sex relationships as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“Every individual is valued. Every individual has the mark of divinity.”
Methodist churches cannot hold same-sex weddings, and pastors may not marry same-sex couples. Interestingly, the bishops attend the General Conference but are not allowed to vote.
Within this church, bishops are elected from the clergy to serve over a geographical area for a four-year term. There are currently 46 bishops in the United States. The bishops are not ordained, but they are responsible for giving “general oversight to the worldly and spiritual interests of the Church,” according the United Methodist Church’s website. The position comes with a six-figure salary and an episcopal residence.
Olivieto herself performed same-sex weddings as a minister in San Francisco prior to her election as bishop. She and her partner of 17 years were married in 2014.
While the Methodist Church’s highest court considers the arguments in the case, many Methodists who support LGBT rights within the denomination will hold a 24-hour prayer vigil. Oliveto told her parishioners across her region, “I believe there is room for all of us. God is going to love you and so am I.” She maintains that church is a place where people should be able to be both vulnerable and loved, according to a piece in The Denver Post. “Every individual is valued. Every individual has the mark of divinity,” she said.
And there is the rub. Church should be a place for each and every individual. It is a place to come for refuge, guidance and wisdom, a place to grow closer to God. It is, however, also imperative to impart truth. That is the responsibility of both the church and its leadership. And truth is not always synonymous with acceptance.
Every person, distinctly and uniquely created by God, is loved by God. However, God does not accept misinterpretations of His word. He does not bend His plan to the will of the people. God is not a populist.
Whether Karen Oliveto is asked to step down from her position as bishop or not, people within the church will be disappointed and angry, and will consider leaving the denomination. For the most part, these emotions will not be because of hate, or even lack of love. These emotions will be founded on the disagreement over God’s intention for marriage and sexuality.
The Methodist Church cannot walk a line that pleases all of the people all of the time. Instead, the General Conference must search out God’s truth and share that message with its members — as all churches should. This will be a defining moment for not only Methodists, but for all denominations. And each religious organization must definitively determine whether its decision is based on spiritual conviction or political influence. Truth is not open to interpretation.
Katie Nations is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.