After crucial ruling against an openly lesbian bishop, what now for United Methodists?

In recent years, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline Protestant world have not been making as much news as they have in the past, at least as evidenced in the annual "top stories" polls conducted by the Religion News Assocition.

However, it’s likely that 2017’s  religion story of the year will be the April 28 United Methodist Church (UMC) ruling that the western region improperly consecrated Karen Oliveto as a bishop and she should be removed. Reason: as an openly married lesbian, she violated church law and her ordination vows.

That Judicial Council edict produced typically sure-footed stories by The Religion Guy’s former AP colleague Rachel Zoll (The San Francisco Chronicle ran wire copy even though Oliveto led a big local church!) and Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times (a rare treat that this fine, neglected scribe gets 34 inches atop A18!). United Methodist News’s Linda Bloom was a must-read (maxim: always check such official outlets plus independent caucuses left and right.)  

Jennifer Brown’s Denver Post spot story and walkup report were appropriately comprehensive, since Bishop Oliveto supervises five states from an office in suburban Denver. “Whatever the ruling, the expectation is that the denomination may divide,” Brown reported, noting that Methodism’s last split, over slavery, took 95 years to heal.

The media mostly overlooked another important Judicial Council decision. Reviewing Illinois and New York disputes, it reaffirmed that ordained or appointed clergy must observe “fidelity in marriage” or “celibacy in singleness.”

The UMC has long upheld traditional belief on sex and marriage shared among the nation’s five biggest denominations (with more than 100 million members). Groups shifting in conscience to favor same-sex clergy and marriage, e.g. Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), exist only within the U.S. But at UMC policy-setting General Conferences the U.S. has only 58 percent of delegates, with 30 percent from Africa and 12 percent from elsewhere. In Protestantism worldwide, liberal change is largely limited to predominantly white “Mainline” churches in western Europe and North America.

What now? Short-run, reporters will want to pursue what happens to UMC  bishops and pastors who broke church law by participating in Oliveto’s  consecration, and follow procedures till (presumably)  she’s no longer a bishop.  

Longer-range, the day of Olivera’s Judicial Council hearing the UMC Council of Bishops called an extraordinary General Conference for 2019. It will ponder recommendations from a 32-member “Commission on the Way Forward” that’s seeking to avoid a sexuality schism. Gays aside, what about heterosexual singles and unwed couples?  

During the Judicial Council session, the Wesleyan Covenant Association met in Memphis. Responding to the Oliveto ruling, this newest conservative UMC caucus insisted “no unity” can exist without common clergy standards and “accountability.” It urged an “honorable exit” for dissenters. But the Love Prevails caucus informed the Council of Bishops that the UMC has 100-plus avowed “Queer pastors,” with more ahead since some area conferences ignore church law. Love Prevails says it’s wrong to blame gays for the UMC split because “heterosexism” is the actual cause.  


-- Reporters should monitor the June 8-13 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, founded before the Puritans reached Massachusetts Bay. Headquarters has yet to acknowledge that as of seven weeks ago liberals prevented the necessary two-thirds of regional bodies to affirm a man-woman marriage proposal. RCA’s New York liberals are planning dual affiliation with the United Church of Christ. RCA General Secretary Tom De Vries is resigning June 15, saying divisions caused him “extreme heartache.” Note that Room For All represents RCA’s doctrinally liberal minority.

-- Post-schism, there’s the Presbyerian Church (USA). Instead of walking out, conservatives in the newborn  “Fellowship Community” are staying in the denomination, hoping to sustain their beliefs within local congregations.  

-- Wheaton College number-cruncher Ed Stetzer doesn’t mention the gay issue but warns in the April 28 Washington Post that “if it doesn’t stem its decline, Mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left” after a long-running effort to become “culturally relevant and socially acceptable.” See also this weekender by tmatt pointing to this essay and providing additional context for these numbers.

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