Installation of Openly Gay Bishop Could Add to Schism in United Methodist Church

By Olp, Susan | The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT), September 11, 2016 | Go to article overview

Installation of Openly Gay Bishop Could Add to Schism in United Methodist Church


Olp, Susan, The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT)


On Sept. 1, The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto began her tenure as bishop of the Mountain Sky Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes Montana.

Oliveto, 58, is the first openly gay pastor in the denomination to hold the leadership post in the second largest mainline denomination in the United States.

She will take part in an installation service Saturday at the Bozeman United Methodist Church. Then, based in Denver, she will begin her first four-year term working with churches in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and a sliver of Idaho.

Those in the Western Jurisdictional Conference who elected her in July simply say she was the best person for the job. But they also realize her election is a watershed moment for the UMC.

The liberal side of the denomination calls her election the culmination of a hard-fought battle to fully include LGBTQ people in the life of the denomination. Conservatives are disappointed in both the action and its timing, saying it violates the UMC's governing policies.

One thing most agree on is that her election could be one more step toward schism in a denomination that finds it increasingly difficult to call itself the United Methodist Church.

"I think it's going to be very difficult for the church to stay together because the theological divide is so deep and so wide," said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Texas-based Good News. The unofficial evangelical United Methodist organization strives to keep the UMC faithful to the traditional understanding of Scripture.

Although the Book of Discipline, the UMC's law book, considers all people of sacred worth, it calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. It also says that "self-avowed homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."

The logical conclusion, opponents to Oliveto's election say, is if gay people in committed relationships can't be ordained as clergy, they can't be elected as bishops. Those in favor say it's time for that to change.

Previously Oliveto served as senior pastor of the progressive 11,000-member Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. She is the first woman to serve as senior pastor of one of the 100 largest UMC churches.

"It was tough breaking that stained-glass ceiling," Oliveto said in a recent interview in Billings.

Oliveto is no stranger to standing up for the rights of others. As pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco, she learned "that the Gospel demands us to take risks on behalf of God's beloved community."

At Bethany, she began to advocate on behalf of the homeless population. She was willing to do whatever it took to help the most vulnerable people, including getting arrested if that was required.

"If you want street credibility, you better be willing to show you stand up for something," Oliveto said. "If we're not willing to risk, are we being faithful?"

Oliveto stood up in other ways. In 1996, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, she and her congregation agreed to be a distribution site for medical marijuana, even though it was illegal. They also committed to being a place of compassion for those who came to buy the drug.

"What would Jesus ask of us?" Oliveto said. "Jesus always sought to relieve suffering."

The decision radically changed the congregation, she said, and caused them to think more boldly about who God was calling them to be.

In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared marriages of gay and lesbian couples legal, Oliveto presided over nine marriage ceremonies for couples she pastored.

A complaint was filed with the denomination's Judicial Council over her actions from someone outside the church. It was eventually resolved.

Oliveto left the church and was recruited to teach at her alma mater, the Pacific School of Religion. …

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