Three openly gay ministers have been nominated to become bishops in the United Methodist Church (UMC), escalating the denomination’s ongoing debate over LGBT issues and directly challenging its official prohibition of homosexuality.
The ministers were nominated earlier this month as candidates for UMC bishop in two different Methodist jurisdictions, or regional groupings of churches. Although the church’s Book of Discipline condemns homosexuality and bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” the openly gay candidates — Rev. Karen Oliveto, Rev. Frank Wulf, and Rev. David Meredith — are among 54 others running to fill 15 vacant bishop vacancies. They will be included on ballots in various jurisdictional elections held across the country the week of July 13.
“Three [openly gay] candidates being nominated is yet another indication that there is a groundswell of grassroots movement within the church to remedy inequality,” Matt Berryman, executive director of Methodist LGBT advocacy organization Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), told ThinkProgress.
I expect to see a gay bishop or two installed in the UMC.
The nominees aren’t the firstly openly gay candidates for bishop (Wulf has been nominated before), but they come in the midst of an ongoing dispute within Methodism over LGBT issues — specifically whether to allow for the ordination of LGBT people and the sanctioning of same-sex marriages. LGBT rights advocates believe that — for the first time in history — the conditions are such that an LGBT candidate could actually end up as bishop. According to analysts at RMN, one of the three could plausibly be elected in the church’s Western Jurisdiction or the North Central Jurisdiction.
Asked about the likelihood of a gay bishop, Berryman was sanguine.
“I think the chances are quite good, actually,” he said. “Just as the LGBT movement has moved at a very fast pace in the U.S. relative to other social movements in history, there are many reasons to suggest the chances are very very good.”
“I expect to see a gay bishop or two installed in the UMC,” he added.
Berryman’s optimism would have seemed naive just a few years ago. Although a significant majority of American Methodists support same-sex marriage, a coalition of conservative delegates from the United States and abroad has consistently blocked votes at denominational meetings to formalize this sentiment in church doctrine.
But in the lead up to this year’s General Conference, or the UMC quadrennial meeting to vote on denominational issues and doctrine, pro-LGBT Methodists felt the tide shifting in their favor. Inspired by the recent legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide and the embrace of LGBT rights by fellow mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), advocates launched a sustained campaign of activism ahead of this year’s General Conference. Beginning in January, ordained ministers started sleeping outside in the cold to protest the church’s anti-LGBT stance, coming out to their congregations in sermons, performing weddings for same-sex couples, and even marrying longtime partners of the same sex — direct violations of church rules.
By May, more than 100 Methodist ministers signed on to a letter coming out as publicly LGBT, and more than 2,500 others publicly declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline’s dismissal of sexuality, promising to ordain LGBT people and declining to replace ministers who are removed from pulpits because of their sexuality. When UMC delegates finally began taking up a series of votes on LGBT issues at the Conference, the bishops offered another, far more sweeping solution: create a commission to decide whether the denomination should restructure to allow for LGBT ordination and same-sex marriage.
The proposal — which requires the church to have another, unscheduled mass meeting to vote on whenever the commission recommends — was highly unusual, but delegates approved it in a nail-biting 428 to 405 vote.
Creating a commission doesn’t instantly allow for the ordination of LGBT individuals, however, and the election of a gay bishop would still be a direct violation of Book of Discipline. It’s unclear what, if any, disciplinary action would be taken if one were chosen; some clergy members have faced sanctions for being openly gay or officiating same-sex weddings in the past, whereas others have been shielded by sympathetic bishops who simply refuse to put them on trial.
But even if the conference hadn’t created a more amenable atmosphere for the election of a gay bishop, Berryman noted that the Methodist debate over LGBT issues has changed dramatically since the tragic mass shooting of 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando in June. Although the gunman claimed to be Muslim and pledged allegiance to ISIS, ministers, bishops, and priests from a variety of Christian traditions have acknowledged that the the killer’s homophobia also exists in their own religious communities. Shortly after the attack, prominent UMC Bishop Minerva Carcaño sparked a debate among her fellow Methodists after she published a blog post that inquired, “Is it possible that we United Methodists with such a negative attitude and position against LGBTQI persons contribute to such a crime?”
When asked about the influence of Orlando on the church’s LGBT debate, Berryman pointed to a recent text message exchange with an unnamed UMC bishop. Berryman reportedly asked the cleric whether anti-LGBT conservative Christians had “any leg to stand on” in the wake of the shooting, especially since homophobic theology appeared to be partly responsible for the attack.
The bishop’s response: “Orlando completely changed the trajectory.”