In the summer of 2016, Karen Oliveto, a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” was elected and consecrated a bishop and assigned to the Mountain Sky Area of the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. This is but one instance of the willful disregard for official church discipline in many parts of the church. The UMC prohibits clergy from performing or entering same-sex marriages, but whether or not this prohibition is enforced increasingly depends on the personal views of the presiding bishop in particular Annual Conferences (the Methodist equivalent of dioceses).
Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy epitomizes the profound tension that threatens to fracture the United Methodist Church. Unlike other mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the UMC still officially affirms the biblical and historic Christian understanding of marriage, despite repeated attempts to change this. Progressive United Methodists have been unable to change the church’s teaching because the UMC’s governing structure differs from those of its mainline siblings. The General Conference, the rule-setting body that governs the church’s affairs, includes representatives from other parts of the world. As a consequence, rapid changes in American culture have not resulted in a revolution in the church’s sexual ethics.