Openly Gay Bishop At Center Of Controversy In United Methodist Church NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly-LGBT bishop in the United Methodist Church, about the controversy over her sexuality.

Openly Gay Bishop At Center Of Controversy In United Methodist Church

Openly Gay Bishop At Center Of Controversy In United Methodist Church

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly-LGBT bishop in the United Methodist Church, about the controversy over her sexuality.


An openly gay bishop is at the center of a controversy over the role of LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church. Karen Oliveto was consecrated as a bishop in the church, which is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. And while many celebrated her appointment, others believed it violated church law. The issue was sent to the church's top court, which ruled at the end of last month. Joining me now is Bishop Oliveto.

Thank you so much for coming on the program, today.

KAREN OLIVETO: Thank you so much for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the court gave something of a muddled ruling saying that you are in good standing, but that the consecration of an openly gay bishop is against church law. That seems not to have settled the matter. Can you explain to us what's happening right now?

OLIVETO: Well, I think it is a very muddled ruling. It's, in fact, 19 pages single-spaced. The Judicial Council, which is our highest court, is as conflicted about the role of LGBTQ people in church and in ministry as the larger United Methodist Church. So they found my nomination in order. They found my election in order, my assignment in order. Where they raised questions was around my consecration. They said I was duly consecrated. However, I should face a ministerial review, which will - which has been ongoing and will continue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to hear your story, Reverend, before we continue to talk. Were you openly gay from - since you first became a pastor?

OLIVETO: I came out - like many pastors do, I came out in seminary. Seminary has a way of making you question everything you've learned before and then rebuilding and reforming. And when I got to seminary, I realized that I was seeing the lives of faithful LGBTQ people really for the first time. And their stories sounded a lot like my story. And I began a real struggle. And I realized that for most of my life, I knew I was a lesbian but really suppressed it very hard.

By the end of my first year of seminary, I couldn't take it any longer. I ran away. I hopped on a bus in Oakland, Calif., and ran as far away as I could, all the way to Nova Scotia, Canada, where my grandparents lived. And I cried for mile after mile after mile. The Bible that was sitting on my lap just became tear stained. And for the first time in my life, God felt distant. And that I didn't understand because the rest of my life, God had always been a very present figure in my life.

But when my tears were finally spent and I took a deep breath and I was able to say, I'm a lesbian, I had the peace which passes all understanding descend upon me. And I realized God was back. But God had never left me. We leave God when we don't live into who God created us to be. So I returned to seminary and so was able to live - you know, live into my identity fully and without shame, without fear. And that was a great gift.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're married, Bishop, as well...

OLIVETO: Yes, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...To a woman. This seems to be the issue, as far as I understand it - not that you are gay but that you are quote, unquote, "sexually active." The church's book of discipline states the following - and I'm quoting here - "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church." So I suppose my question is, is your goal to change the doctrine? Do bishops and members of your church who believe in that doctrine not have a right to their beliefs?

OLIVETO: Well, you've raised up a couple of points that I want to talk about. One, when we put in the phrase, in 1972, although we do not condone the practices of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching, there was no discussion of what the practice of homosexuality entails. There was no discussion on what Christian teaching it was based on. You know, we have much to learn about human sexuality. And we can't be afraid to talk about it. But that's the other thing The United Methodist Church has done. We support the civil rights of all families but refuse to marry LGBTQ couples.

We encourage the military to remove the "don't ask, don't tell" ban, but we have one in place in The United Methodist Church for LGBTQ clergy. So I don't think we are asking the right questions right now. And I think the fundamental question for we Christians is, where is love? Because wherever love is, God is, for God is called love. And so for us not to recognize the love between two people who are committed to building a life together - because when they do that and do it well, it impacts the larger community - when we're not engaged in that, we're missing an opportunity to help us live into God's beloved community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Would it be, then, a good thing for the church to split if there are fundamentally different views in it?

OLIVETO: Well, I would hate to see schism. And here's why - I believe that there are essentials - and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said there's essentials that we must agree on. And they are things like our understanding of the Holy Trinity, the role of sacraments. And then there are opinions, which we can disagree on and still live together with. And I think we've raised the opinion - our opinion on human sexuality and homosexuality, to an essential.

And I think that has caused this wide division in the church. But I'm looking around, especially U.S. culture right now, and we are being invited to other one another - to make some of us in and some of us out, to talk about us versus them. This is a very dangerous time in our country. And I believe if we in The United Methodist Church can show what it's like to live together, even with our differences, that we have a witness to make to the rest of the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bishop Karen Oliveto, thank you so much for joining us.

OLIVETO: Thank you so much for your time today.

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