Church at the Speed of Life

by | Jul 19, 2016 | 6 comments

Last week, Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop of the United Methodist Church was elected. Much like at her baptism, she was consecrated with the laying on of hands and sacred words of declaration.   She has even been appointed to her place of service for the next four years. This is a historic moment indeed.  Some will say historically tragic. Others, historically grand.
How did we go from decades of “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and the inability of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” to being ordained with Karen Oliveto being elected Bishop?
How did we go from all matters of sexuality being referred to the Council of Bishops at General Conference to this historic election just a few short weeks later?
While this decision is dramatic, it is certainly not without precedent.
Consider the number of annual conferences that have voted in favor of non-conformity with the Book of Discipline, and now refuse to take on church trials related to LGBTQ folks.  (The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning.)  Eight annual conferences voted in favor of full inclusion of gay clergy.
It’s no secret that the church is often slow to change. Measured and cautious, we approach change with a deliberate pace. We’ve taken some flak for it. Missed some opportunities. Not acted while the iron is hot.
The pace has suddenly picked up when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion.  At least it may seem fast to many of us. But consider the gay people, who were baptized at birth in the church, and later called by God to be in ministry. They’ve responded.  But we have not thrown our arms wide open.  Even so, gay people have been answering the call to ministry and serving UM churches for decades.  What’s happened is that we’ve finally hit church at the speed of life, to borrow a phrase from a colleague.
The world is changing and it’s not waiting for committee votes or episcopal commissions or legislative changes.   Same thing in the church.
Over the years, various conferences have voted for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians from the Great Plains to Arkansas, and New Jersey to Germany.   Resolutions have been passed, legislation has been voted on. But the Book of Discipline has remained unchanged on these matters of human sexuality.
That is, until the Western Jurisdiction and the North Central Jurisdiction nominated three openly gay candidates for bishop between them, and one was elected.
Certainly, there will be upset and judicial rulings.  Some people will decide to leave the church.  Others will decide to come back to church.  There may be a split, a schism, an exodus.  People on all sides will have opinions.
One thing will not change:  the need to love each other in the midst of fear and anxiety.
In the United Methodist Church, this election has been a long time coming.  Especially if you are gay, called to ministry, and anxious to live out that faithful calling. Although I’m straight I am anxious to receive the giftings of these clergy, and welcome Bishop Karen Oliveto to the Rocky Mountain Conference. Turns out she’ll be my Bishop.

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  1. Paul Wood

    Good afternoon Rebekah,
    Firstly I will reintroduce myself. We met at the EC District Pastors Day Apart in the Iowa Conference at the Salem Methodist Church, I am the strange Englishman in a foreign land. The appointment of Bishop Karen will certainly be seen by many as the Council of Bishops lying to the members of the Methodist faith. What happened to this commission that was to assess and report back? My church is open to all faiths, creeds, colour and orientation as we are all God’s children and as brothers and sisters we are called by Christ to love one another. The issue is now regarding the Book of Discipline. My viewpoint is that we can disregard the BoD as it has no relevance to the church today. The ordination of same sex clergy is in contravention to the BoD. Does this mean if a clergy or lay member were to commit an offence by the BoD they will not receiving punishment? Is there to be one law for the LBGT community and another for others. The church does need to be relevant for the modern society but do we need to throw away our bibles? Can clergy niot preach against the LBGT issues? We seem to be on a slippery slope now and we need to find a healing balm to bring both sides together.
    Pastor Paul Wood

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      You raise interesting points, Paul. Thanks for your post. I think what’s happening in the world and in some parts of the church is that we are moving from the perspective of “LGBT issues” to “LGBT people.” As you are aware, there has been a great deal of discovery in sciences–from biology to genetics; and in theology as well as Biblical scholarship–that has shifted our understanding of human sexuality. One of the reasons I love the UMC is that we include experience, tradition and reason in our understanding and application of Scripture. How that fits with the Book of Discipline remains to be seen.

  2. Kevin Barron

    Rebekah, I have benefited from your emails, but I do not understand your perspective here. There comes times when the church must stand against culture, not give way before it. In the case of the ordination of a bishop living in open defiance of her vows for years, this cannot stand. The Book of Discipline on this point is (most importantly) based on the Bible, which is our ultimate guide of conduct. If the church cannot walk in truth, why are we in existence? God has been faithful to raise up prophets at trying times in the history of his people, and he will be faithful this time as well.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      HI Kevin, thanks for your comments. I see that we have different perspectives on this issue. I understand that can be difficult. As I commented on the previous post, there are evolving understandings of the Biblical passages related to human sexuality. These are informed by both Biblical scholarship and the sciences. I agree that there are appropriate times to stand against the culture–especially in the areas of violence, hate, fear-mongering, and injustice. I tread much more carefully when it comes to who is “in” and who is “out.”

      • Jeanne K

        I understand the question of the Bible and the Book of Discipline. But I am taking Jesus at his word when he said Love thy Neighbor as thyself. He did not say Love your neighbor unless they are ….. or …… He said love your neighbor. To me that is all inclusive of skin color, sexual orientation. I believe the Bible also says judge not least you be judged. That is how I intend to move forward by simply First Loving the Lord My God with all my mind, soul and heart and secondly loving my neighbor without qualification.

  3. Ben Boothe

    Rebekah, Way to go girl. We too are straight but have worked hard for equal rights for gay, lesbian, racial, and women groups. My wife Saneh did a movie with Tina Fey for Paramount (she is an actress) and is a leader of progress for cWomen in Films and SagAftra…she being from Iran she fights much against religious suppression of progress. You should get with her…when she gets before a crowd of women in a Burka it takes the audience breath away. Saneh had a relative killed by Islamic radical men. We support your views with it reservation and yes our Christians churches have been way behind the curve on these topics.
    Ben B Boothe
    Saneh Boothe



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