At its annual Western Jurisdiction Conference, held in November at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, a married gay clergyman from California was among 13 new bishops elected by delegates. This marks only the second time that an openly gay bishop has been elected.
Rev. Karen Oliveto was unanimously elected bishop of the UMC Mountain Sky Area, which includes Utah, in 2016, setting off a firestorm that has threatened to split the denomination. The United Methodist Judicial Council ruled her election as invalid in 2017, but Oliveto remains in office despite the ruling.
The Jurisdiction voted to elect the Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth as the California-Pacific Conference bishop, which has about 50,000 members in churches in Southern and Central California, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Guam, and Saipan. He received nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Oliveto embraced Bridgeforth after he was named bishop and gave him a warm welcome on Twitter.
“Another new colleague in the Western Jurisdiction!” Oliveto tweeted. “Welcome, Cedrick Bridgeforth!! Oh, my brother! So glad you are here.”
Some within and without the Methodist church immediately cried foul that Bridgeforth was elected, saying its rules prohibiting openly gay people from being elected as candidates, as stated in the UMC’s Full Book of Discipline. The Book states that “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates.”
Efforts to change the church’s rules haven’t been formally adopted, but many church leaders have refused to follow the enforcements when considering new leadership, including leaders in the UMC Western Jurisdiction, whose website advocates for being open to “correctional lenses” to better serve “changing demographics.”
“Thus, our vision is an emerging vision, moving us to become ever more nearly the church God would have us be,” the website says.
Many local denominations within the Methodist Church have adopted LGBTQ-affirming stances, including conference host Christ United Methodist Church, downtown Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church, and Central City’s Centenary United Methodist Church. Christ United hosted the Pride Interfaith in 2019.
“Reconciling Ministries Network celebrates that LGBTQ+ persons are a good expression of God’s diverse creation and exists to advocate for the affirmation of all of God’s children in the Church and the world,” reads their website.
This spring, conservatives launched a new Global Methodist Church, which would accept denominations leaving the United Methodist Church system and would ban openly LGBT pastors, and would deny same-sex marriages.
Over 300 U.S. denominations had left the church and another 1,000 are expected to do so soon. The church currently has 30,000 denominations in the U.S. and 13,000 abroad.
Bridgeforth noted the controversy in his acceptance speech.
“It is the church where I found purpose — even when it felt like it was chewing me up and spitting me out. I still couldn’t let it go,” Bridgeforth said, with his husband, Christopher Hucks-Ortiz, standing next to him. “It wasn’t about the institution; it wasn’t about its rules or its regulations. It was about the call of God upon my life, to be bigger, to be better, to open doors where possible, and to chart new ground where we have to.”