Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Latest on the United Methodist Church

On Friday evening, the 28th of April, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church released their decision regarding some very challenging issues that are at the top of our life together as United Methodists. There were various topics of law and Discipline within the denomination. The dominant case that so many were waiting for was the case of a bishop who was in consecrated and appointed while also being in a same-sex marriage. The declaratory decision that was requested of the Judicial Council was - is this allowed within the church law?

There are plenty of statements regarding the official word is about the UMC's Discipline. The situation that we currently work under revolves around those statements of homosexuality and incorporation of LGBTQI persons into the full life of the UMC. I don't have anything to contribute to the ongoing conversation which I have already commented upon. I want to focus on the decision of Judicial Council regarding our bishops.

The most obvious thing to deal with is that the decision does not make anyone completely happy. The bishop had her lifestyle declared as "self-avowed homosexual". Her same-sex marriage was declared to be avowing a lifestyle of homosexuality. And lets be honest about our current state of definitions: homosexuality is about sexual activity and not attraction to or relational status with people of the same gender. This declaration broadens the definition of same-sex marriage to include same-sex sexual activity. And it should.

The normalization of same-sex marriage should receive the same level of expectation regarding sexual activity. There is a lot of statistical data that would support that marriage does not necessarily mean that sexual activity is required, but the commonly held standard of healthy marriage includes regular sexual activity. If we are to assume that same-sex marriages are to be accepted as normal, then the normal definition of a healthy marriage (including sexual activity) would be applicable to those marriages.

I feel this was a common sense ruling. Even if we don't deal with it enough or sufficiently enough to address it as part of our lives, sexual activity in marriage is part of the expectation. If those who desire to see the status of same-sex marriage as normal, then sexual activity is not out of bounds. Especially when we talk about fidelity of marriage as an expectation of clergy within the UMC.

But does this open all clergy up to an examination of their sexual practices? Maybe it should.

This leads us into another decision of the Judicial Council. Another decision gave direction that Boards of Ordained Ministry (the group in a local Annual Conference {the boundaries and organization of a collection of UMC churches and clergy} who handles examination and approval of clergy candidates) to include examination of "all provisions relevant to pastoral ministry, including issues of sexuality". This puts the Board of Ordained Ministries on task to ask "what is your sexual activity like" of any prospective clergy member. And it could open the door to examining the clergy of all standing within the Annual Conference. It is not outside of the consequences of this decision.

But back to the bishop.

The bishop in question, Bishop Karen Oliveto, was declared as being outside of the boundaries of church law due to her marriage. But the Judicial Council also decided that they are not in a position to interact with her consecration or appointment as a bishop. The Judicial Council declared that she is "good standing" and was at the point of time when she was consecrated and appointed. This sounds like they are waffling or being wishy-washy. The reality is that they are standing by the rule of law of the  United Methodist Church.

Bishop Oliveto was elected to become a bishop with no outstanding question to her qualities or qualification to become bishop. That is a historical fact. The issue of her being in a same-sex marriage is not at issue here. If there is an issue of law, it is that persons within her Annual Conference did not bring charges against her. But since that did not happen, she was brought forward as a bishop candidate. Her election was clear of question. And the Judicial Council does not have the authority to undo nor remove her from her position as bishop. This is fair.

Her appointment as bishop was challenged because some believe she was in violation of the church law. The Judicial Council agreed with that position. But to remove her through action of the Judicial Council would violate the same church law. Judicial Council has authority to rule on the legality of actions. They do not have the action to undo what another United Methodist body has authority to do. The Judicial Council put the issue back upon the jurisdiction and the bishops of that jurisdiction to take action. This is the appropriate thing to do so that the order of the UMC can be maintained.

This does not immediately change anything. It does put in place a course of action that someone needs to begin in the northwest region of the US UMC. It also puts more weight upon the outcome of the commission that has been challenged to examine where we are as a united church. When the called special session of General Conference (the organizing authority of the Unite Methodist Church) happens in 2019, there is supposed to be a "way forward" for the people called United Methodist. Until that time, there are a lot things that can happen.