The United Methodist Church (UMC) elected its first openly gay bishop Friday evening, a major step towards LGBT equality for America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. But equality advocates point out that the vote is only a partial victory, as it directly violates the church’s ongoing ban on pastors who are “practicing homosexuals.”
After two days of split votes and 17 ballots, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC — a regional collection of churches — voted unanimously to elect the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a bishop. Although choosing clerics is standard practice in the UMC, this election was different: Oliveto, who currently serves as pastor of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco, California, came out to her congregation and the denomination as a lesbian in a same-sex relationship this past year, signing her name to a public list of LGBT Methodist clergy.
Up until the vote, the UMC — whose Book of Discipline still officially prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — has never had openly gay bishop, making Oliveto the first.
Today’s news represents the breaking down of a longstanding barrier that has prevented queer people access to the fullness of Christian vocation on the grounds that they are ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’
“A 40-year movement to end codified discrimination against LGBTQ persons is reaching a tipping point that hardly any rational-minded observer can deny,” read a statement from Matthew Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, a pro-LGBT advocacy organization for Methodists. “Since LGBTQ people have long been denied access to public spaces, homes, and churches, today’s news represents the breaking down of a longstanding barrier that has prevented queer people access to the fullness of Christian vocation on the grounds that they are ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’”
Oliveto was one of three openly gay pastors nominated for bishop this year, a strategic move by equality advocates to challenge the denomination’s anti-LGBT stance. The church, which claims around 12 million members worldwide, formally refers to homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and pastors have been defrocked for officiating same-sex weddings.
But the past few years have seen a groundswell of support among Methodists for LGBT inclusion. Since 2014, some bishops have simply refused to bring charges against clergy who come out as LGBT, and a number of ministers have officiated same-sex weddings of friends, family members, and colleagues in direct defiance of church teaching.
The movement reached a fevered pitch this year ahead of the UMC’s General Conference, the denomination’s quadrennial meeting to vote on church-wide issues and doctrine. In the lead up to the gathering, a Methodist minister in Kansas came out as a lesbian to her congregation in a sermon, another pastor began sleeping in a tent to protest the church’s anti-LGBT stance, and more than 100 UMC clergy came out as LGBT en masse. By the time delegates assembled to vote in June, more than 2,500 UMC clergy had signed a letter refusing to comply with the Book of Discipline’s condemnation of homosexuality, saying they would ordain LGBT people and decline to replace LGBT ministers removed from pulpits because of their sexuality.
Although UMC members were slated to vote on a number of LGBT-related overtures at the conference, church bishops ultimately proposed an alternative option that would form a commission to discern whether the denomination should allow for LGBT ordination and same-sex marriage. The historic, catch-all proposal was approved by delegates in a 428 to 405 vote.
As the shift towards LGBT equality within the UMC reaches a tipping point, it remains unclear whether Oliveto will face sanctions or discipline for being elevated to the status of bishop. The commission created by the General Conference likely won’t reach a decision for at least a year, meaning the status of Oliveto and hundreds of openly LGBT UMC clergy remains in ecclesiological limbo.
In the meantime, however, equality advocates are celebrating her election as a major step towards a more accepting church. Shortly after the vote, Rev. Frank Schaefer — a UMC minister who was famously defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding before being reinstated on a technicality — tweeted out a celebratory message.
“Wow. We elected the very first openly gay #umc bishop,” he tweeted. “Congrats, [Karen] Oliveto. We just witnessed a seismic shift toward lgbtq inclusion.”