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.