On Blame and History

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818Yesterday, a sister in Christ and clergy colleague shared a link to a blog post regarding the upcoming Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto at the last Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto’s election is being contested due to her being a married lesbian, which is against the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. The post was written by the Rev. Jeremy Smith, an Elder serving First UMC in Portland, Oregon. Rev. Smith has been an outspoken proponent of changing of the BoD‘s current language against the practice of homosexuality by clergy so I was not surprised by his expression of support for Bishop Oliveto. What I was surprised about was his attack on United Methodists from the south.

To take him at his word, Rev. Smith feels that southern UMs are to blame for all of the ills within the denomination.

I am a native Mississippian and I certainly acknowledge that the south is not without blame in a lot of incidents of intolerance, especially matters of racism and other discriminatory practices. I have been outspoken about such myself. Laying the blame for any of the ills within the United Methodist Church squarely at the feet of the faithful from the south is disgusting.

This assessment could not be farther from the truth.

Rev. Smith’s attempt to paint the south in such a poor light comes across as an ad hominem attack on the entirety of the southern US. His insinuation that the South Central Jurisdiction is a “jurisdiction behaving badly” by challenging the election of Bishop Oliveto is ridiculous. Our Discipline allows for declaratory decisions to be sought by bodies within the UMC and this is what is occurring. No, the SCJ can not interfere in the ordination of clergy elsewhere but the fact that Bishop Oliveto is now a bishop – and thus part of the Council of Bishops – means that she is now accountable to the entire UMC, not just her annual conference or jurisdiction. The SCJ were well within their rights to challenge this election for that very reason.

Regardless of how one feels of the current language regarding homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline, the fact remains that at least for the moment practicing homosexuals are not allowed to be ordained as clergy (Bishop Oliveto has repeatedly had charges filed against her under church law – even by people within her own jurisdiction – but I will not speculate as to why these charges have not been dealt with as they have been in other annual conferences and jurisdictions). There are avenues for changing church law but the Western Jurisdiction – which due to their relatively small membership do not have as many delegates as other jurisdictions at General Conference do – have instead chosen to buck the system. The message they have sent to the rest of the connection is, “We’re going to do what we want no matter what anyone else says.”

With that in mind, perhaps the SCJ is not the “jurisdiction behaving badly.” And if such is not a schismatic action, I do not know what is.

Rev. Smith may also do well to be reminded that the election of Bishop Oliveto occurred on the 18th ballot. The position that Bishop Oliveto now occupies was the only open office within the episcopacy in the Western Jurisdiction… and it took 18 ballots to elect her. Let that sink in. This tells me that the majority of the Western Jurisdiction is not of one mind on the homosexual issue, contrary to what Rev. Smith seems to feel.

Rev. Smith also points out that the south is ultimately responsible for the current jurisdictional structure of the church, and that the segregated Central Jurisdiction where African-American congregations, clergy, and other leadership were concentrated. Unfortunately, history proves that this is true and I agree with Rev. Smith when he states that this is an ugly stain on our church. With that said, I have more bad news for Rev. Smith: The northern Methodists agreed to this and went along with church-sanctioned segregation for nearly 30 years, in spite of the clear anti-racism and anti-slavery teachings of John Wesley.

Why did the north agree to segregation – simply to grow the Methodist Church? My own experience previously living in a non-southern state is one of even deeper segregation than I witnessed in modern Mississippi. I agree that racism is a blemish on our church’s history, but the blame is not solely on the south especially when it was the northern branch of the church who agreed to the Central Jurisdiction compromise.

Both groups are equally guilty of allowing it to happen.

Here’s a history lesson: The groundwork for the desolation of the Central Jurisdiction was laid by many Methodists, including clergy from the Mississippi Annual Conference. The Born of Conviction Statement was written and signed by clergy in Mississippi to decry segregation within the church and in schools. They faced much opposition and many had to leave Mississippi after the statement was published. Rev. Smith would argue that the election of Bishop Oliveto may be a similar action, but I do not agree with such thinking.

All of this to say: The southern jurisdictions are not the ones to blame for all of the issues within the United Methodist Church and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. To paint southern Methodists in as poor a light as he has is just as ridiculous.

Let me be clear: I have nothing against Rev. Smith. His posts have generally been thought-provoking and I find myself agreeing with him on several issues. My issue here is Rev. Smith’s opinion that the southern UMs are the ones being the “sticks in the mud” as we say back home within the United Methodist Church. I can not agree with such thinking and find such thinking to be offensive on so many levels, not to mention untrue.


3 thoughts on “On Blame and History

  1. As a southern Methodist myself, I didn’t read Rev. Smith’s article as an “attack on Methodist’s from the south.” Instead, I thought he did a good job of highlighting the history that led to our current jurisdictional structure and how that contributes to our current polity dilemma. Granted he comes at this with a particular bias, but that is true for all of us.

    1. Allen, thanks for your thoughts. Bias may be my issue as well but the tone that I felt from his post really rubbed me the wrong way. I take a lot of exception when people solely blame the south for bigotry when other groups have planks in their eyes. I don’t buy into a narrative that places blame solely on southern churches. As I indicated, let’s not forget that the northern branch went along with this too and experience has taught me that the north is much more segregated than the south. The pot should not be calling the kettle black.

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