I just finished meeting with Bishop Karen Oliveto, a woman whose name you have possibly seen lately in the news. Some believe her election, in the words of our Bishop, Robert Hayes, who wrote to us this week, “tears at the covenant that connects us as one united church.” The fact that Bishop Oliveto is a woman legally married to another woman is, in the minds of some, a disqualification for an office that the Spirit-guided Western Jurisdictional Conference July 15th felt God calling them to do: elect an incredibly gifted woman as Bishop. (a vote, unlike any other in the denomination, was unanimously cast for her to become a Bishop).
I don’t think I’d use the words “tears at the covenant” if I were describing this election, though. Especially after meeting with her. I would say it stretches the covenant that connects us as one united church. I’d say “stretching” is a good thing. Stretching a fabric allows for more growth—tearing renders a garment useless. Bishop Oliveto’s leadership in the Mountain Sky Area (headquartered in Denver and covering the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Conferences in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and a section of Idaho) will allow for growth. She has proven that she has the gift of helping churches find their relevance in places where the church is considered suspect, dead, or irrelevant at best. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church has 11,000 members in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. This context is not “friendly confines” for churches—people don’t just naturally “flock to church” because it’s what their mom told them to do. This church is jam-packed every single Sunday with a congregation that is ethnically diverse, young, and fully embracing of all the varied communities of people who are marginalized by society. The church feeds 800,000 a year in a program I volunteered in all week that offers three meals a day to people coming in off the street. It is a true beacon of light in the darkness.
So—stretching, rather than tearing, is what the church will experience if it has the courage to accept the gift that God has given it through her ministry. I’m not just basing my opinion of this on the gifts I know she brings to the table—I’m basing this certainty on a genuine sense of God’s anointing on her as I sat and spoke with her and listened to her story of the past week. I found myself with tears welling in my eyes as she spoke of preparing for Annual Conference (at which she was asked if she would allow her name to be lifted up as an endorsed candidate for bishop by her Conference, the California-Nevada Conference) with no intention at all of doing so. She was afraid that “who she was would hurt the church.” I thought to myself—“here’s a question I’ve never had to ask myself, why should who she is and who she loves have to be a wall to the reaches of her ministry?” At the conference, a trusted friend who was encouraging her to allow her name to be lifted in consideration said, “Perfect love casts out fear,” quoting 1 John 4:18. Over the process of a very spiritually guided month, and as other candidates dropped out of consideration, the Jurisdictional Delegates seriously considered, “what will happen if we elect an out lesbian Bishop?” They feared for the future, and the ramifications of such a decision. Gradually the conversation flipped. “What will happen if we don’t elect an out lesbian Bishop whom God has so obviously gifted for this ministry?” Bishop Oliveto would certainly be a paragons of leadership of our own conference’s focus, to bring “more people, more young people, and more diverse people” into the church. I have no doubt I’d have voted for her to become a bishop had I been a Western Delegate too.
I believe this is a Spirit-led movement, and the resulting consequences will be for the benefit of God’s church. Things may change—our own South Central Jurisdiction voted 109-84 to request a ruling on this election from the Judicial Council, which is the denomination’s supreme court. Delegates in favor believe the election violates the Book of Discipline. Though a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” is barred from becoming an ordained minister, I don’t believe a complaint against Karen Oliveto has been filed, and if it has, it is up to her Bishop to decide a consequence. Besides, arriving at a conclusion as to whether Bishop Oliveto truly fits that description involves asking questions that should, frankly, be the business of her and her wife. Do we want to get into all that, or do we want to stretch the covenant to allow for God’s grace?
We have a great tradition of “stretching the covenant.” We have allowed for women to serve as Bishops, people of color to serve as Bishops, and divorced persons to serve as Bishops. We seemed willing to stretch for all of those so that grace could abound. The thing is, God’s covenant can’t be torn. A promise has been made that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church. (Matthew 16:18) It just takes human beings, with our narrow minds and limited imaginations, time to wake up and quit behaving in the world like I sometimes do before I have my morning coffee. Stretch! Wake up! The church will be just fine with all God’s people fully included and fully participating. The only tearing that will happen is breaking of chains that bind us in tired old systems of thinking, or perhaps the tearing of a cocoon that means transformation. As Bishop Oliveto quoted Isaiah in her letter to the Western Jurisdiction, “Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth—do you not perceive it?”
I encourage you to read her letter to the Western Jurisdiciton:
A statement from our own Bishop can be found here, which also includes a statement from the Council of Bishops: