Lesbian bishop at center of possible Methodist schism to preach in Utah, but sees ‘beacons of hope’ amid dispute

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski) This Wednesday, April 19, 2017, photo shows Bishop Karen Oliveto in the sanctuary of a United Methodist Church near her office in Highlands Ranch, Colo. She will be speaking Sunday in Salt Lake City.

Karen P. Oliveto was born on Good Friday. At 11, she felt called to be a United Methodist pastor. By 16, the New York native had preached her first sermon. Within a decade, she had completed seminary and was serving a small dairy farming community in the Catskills, where she also drove the town ambulance (“I got to drive fast and was always present in the midst of a crisis”).

Two years ago, Oliveto was elected bishop of the denomination’s Mountain Sky Area, which includes Utah as well as Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

Her elevation put the energetic, God-talking leader at the center of a brewing storm over the issue of homosexuality that had finally reached its apex.

That’s because Oliveto, who is married to a woman, is the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop in the global faith.

Within minutes of her 2016 election in Denver, representatives within the faith filed a complaint that would eventually reach the Judicial Council — the church’s version of the Supreme Court. The council ruled that the election stands but declared that her marriage was a violation of church policies.

Next month, United Methodist delegates will meet in St. Louis for a special session of the General Conference to decide if there’s a way to move ahead on LGBTQ clergy without splitting in two.

“It may lead to schism,” Oliveto told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I am praying it doesn’t.”

On Sunday at 10 a.m., the 60-year-old bishop will be in Utah, preaching at the historic First United Methodist Church in downtown Salt Lake City.

In Jesus’ baptism, she will tell congregants, “God claimed Jesus, and [displayed that] God loves us — with a love that never lets us go.”

Divided home

After her parents divorced, Oliveto felt particularly embraced by her Methodist community in Babylon, N.Y. It was the village that reared her, the Christian community that first connected her to the divine.

It was through the community that she came to know most of herself, but not all.

The issue of homosexuality first arose in 1968, when the denomination was created by the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

In a 1972 statement about social principles, the new church said, "Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth … although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

In the 1980s, when Oliveto was studying for the ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., she listened to fellow students describe their experiences of being gay and lesbian. Pieces of her internal puzzle then came into focus.

“I heard so much of my story,” Oliveto said, “in their stories.”

This sense of recognition, though, spun her into a crisis. God had always been so present in her life. Now she heard silence.

She wept and prayed until the moment she was able to say: “I am a lesbian.”

With that, God was back in “a profound way,” and she felt a “peace that surpasses understanding.”

While working at a church camp a few years later, Oliveto met Robin Ridenour, a nurse anesthetist and United Methodist deaconess. The attraction was palpable.

Now they have been together for 20 years, and, in 2014, married in a very public ceremony.

“I don’t want to elope,” she told everyone, wanting to take vows “solemnly and joyously” before family, friends and God.

With Ridenour by her side, Oliveto has served several majority-LBGTQ United Methodist congregations, including Glide Memorial, a San Francisco megachurch with 12,000 members.

That church was “incredibly diverse, serving addicts, people on streets, CEOs, and lots of celebrities, and people loved each other,” she said. “It was powerful to see what could be possible. God shows up in vivid ways on the margins.”

A night to remember

On July 15, 2016, Oliveto was one of nine candidates who had put their names up for the bishop opening.

The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor at Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist and Centenary United Methodist churches, was there.

After some balloting, it came down to three, including Oliveto.

Any of the trio would have made “excellent bishops,” McVicker said, and no one could see a path to a majority vote. It seemed like a stalemate until one of the three bowed out.

As the lesbian candidate’s final competitor strode to the microphone, “the Holy Spirit descended on the whole room,” McVicker said. That woman, too, “stepped aside, and we all knew this was Karen’s time. She was made for it.”

The vote wasn’t unanimous but overwhelming enough to seal the election.

“This was a God moment for us and the whole denomination and the battle we’ve been embroiled in for 50 years,” she said. “She has bishop timber in her bones.”

Will they split?

(Photo courtesy of the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker) The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor of Salt Lake City's First United Methodist Church, is shown preaching.

The Council of Bishops, the United Methodist Church’s highest body, has called the special sessionto receive and act on a report...on a way forward,” according to the official website.

A commission appointed by the bishops examined “paragraphs in the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality” and explored options “to strengthen the unity of the church.”

The “One Church Plan” is based on flexibility. It grants “space for traditionalists to continue to offer ministry as they have in the past; space for progressives to exercise freely a more complete ministry with LGBTQ persons; and space for all United Methodists to continue to coexist without disrupting their ministries.”

For her part, Oliveto hopes the church that nurtured her stays together.

The bishop and her wife visited 320 of the 400 United Methodist churches in her region within her first 16 months after election.

“What I found were church beacons of hope for their communities," she said. "I listened to people who were angry. I hope I gave them a vision of what the people of God would look like.”

McVicker fears a split is likely. While both her congregations are on board with the bishop, some fellow pastors in more conservative areas of the Beehive State might not be. Ditto for some overseas churches, especially in Africa.

Maybe separating is not a bad idea. “Then we can all go about doing what we’re supposed to — helping the poor and disenfranchised,” the Utah pastor said. “This is God’s church. If this is what needs to happen, so be it.”

Whatever the outcome, though, McVicker has faith that God “will make everything clear and bring a sense of peace.”