Dear Thoughtful Pastor: My question: I have been an active member of the United Methodist church for years. I know that the discipline is supposedly BIBLICALLY BASED but the recent appointment in Arizona of an openly lesbian to a Bishop position is TOTALLY CONTRARY TO WHAT I KNOW THAT THE BIBLE TEACHES! I am considering re-thinking my position of belonging to the United Methodist Church. I even looked up the difference in the United Methodist and Methodist church hoping that the decision was made for the regular Methodist church and NOT THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. But,that WAS NOT THE CASE. This took place in a United Methodist Church in Arizona.
Readers: you will have to wade through some confusing terminology here to understand both the question and the answer.
One: The “discipline” the questioner refers to is The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the UMC’s rule book which guides the functioning of this 12,500,000 world-wide member denomination. The book is a long, confusing, contradictory in places, many-times amended document, similar to the US tax code.
Two: There are other Methodist groups, but none nearly as large as The United Methodist Church.
Three: The General Conference (GC), meeting every four years, is the one place that changes to the Book of Discipline can be made. The GC met in May, 2016. I served as a reporter for that Conference and learned first-hand the nightmarishly difficult process of making changes, similar to getting the US Congress to actually pass helpful legislation.
Four: The Judicial Council (see below) functions in The United Methodist Church in a similar manner to the Supreme Court in the US. The Judicial Council rules on the validity of various decisions made by the UMC. It is not uncommon for the Judicial Council to strike down major legislation passed by the General Conference.
Five: The most hotly debated parts of the Discipline concern language about human sexuality. These debates threatened to completely shut down this past General Conference. The UMC was at the brink of dissolution when a motion was passed to refer all legislation connected to sexuality to a committee to be appointed by the Bishops. The committee with brings their findings and recommendations to a specially called General Conference. While the decision to refer kept the UMC intact, it also left a great deal unresolved and heightened tension.
Six: “Jurisdictions” refer to groupings of US states where Bishops are elected and appointed to serve in various Conferences, smaller groupings within the larger Jurisdictions.
So, as the questioner notes, this summer a married lesbian pastor, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, was elected to serve as a Bishop. The election took place in Arizona as delegates, both lay and clergy, from the Western Jurisdiction gathered for that task. After her election, she was appointed to serve the Mountain Sky Area, which includes both Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences. As of September 1, 2016, Rev. Oliveto stepped into her new role as Bishop over Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado plus one county in Idaho
So, now what? That’s what this question poses for the questioners, for many in the UMC, and for many other Christians who find themselves troubled by the increasingly complex issues surrounding the Bible and the nature of human sexuality.
Unquestionably, parts of the Bible appear to condemn any same-sex intimacy. Do an Internet search for “clobber passages” The verses condemning and punishing homosexual activity will pop up instantly.
Unfortunately, other verses also indicate support of slavery, promote genocide, encourage polygamy, suggest that the sun revolves around the earth, and insist women should be silent in church gatherings.
Biblical interpreters address and resolve most of the challenging passages by recognizing their unique cultural settings. Nonetheless, there are religious groups today who believe those verses accurately describe God’s plan for humanity and the nature of the universe.
That pretty well sums up the many passionate discussions and arguments over the human sexuality issue: while a significant number of US Christian scholars think that the “clobber passages” do not describe loving, same-sex couples of today, another significant group, especially those in African churches, believe exactly the opposite.
The UMC stands at a complex crossroads. If it splits over this, it won’t be the first split. It also split over slavery. In a gross over-simplification, the southern church supported it, the northern church did not. SMU, Southern Methodist University, has its roots in that split.
All Christians, including the United Methodist who wrote me, must decide how to interpret the Bible today. This process will not end, ever. We can, however, show respect and generosity to different opinions and decisions.
[Note: a version of this column is scheduled to run in the Sept 2, 2016, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. Please email questions to: email@example.com.]