Together at the Table (Karen Oliveto) -- A Review
TOGETHER AT THE TABLE: Diversity without Division in the United Methodist Church. By Karen P. Oliveto. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. X + 181 pages.
The journey to full inclusion of LBGT persons in the church, and in society as a whole, has been a long and often arduous one. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision as recently as June 2015 that marriage rights must be extended to same-sex couples. The debate continues as to whether businesses can choose not to serve the same. While some churches and denominations have officially given support to full inclusion, there more that have not than those who do. Even if denominations have given support, that doesn’t mean all congregations are on board. Even congregations that are officially “open and affirming” (my denomination’s term for inclusion), not everyone is fully comfortable. In other words, we’re early on in this process, with a long way to go before inclusion is common place in the American church.
Among the Protestant denominations still trying to figure this out is the United Methodist Church. The largest mainline Protestant denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention is larger, but is not considered mainline), the United Methodist Church probably has a congregation in most every town in America. They can be conservative, and they can be very liberal. My son is a graduate student at a liberal UMC seminary, so I know where things stand, at least to some degree. Togetherat the Table is written by a United Methodist Bishop who happens to be a lesbian, and in this book under review she attempts to argue not only for inclusion of LGBT folks, but a recognition of them as leaders (and her specifically). I write this review as a pastor within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which gives congregations freedom on this and other matters. My congregation is Open and Affirming, many others are not. The denomination has chosen not to use that designation for itself, simply affirming that we are a welcoming people. Therefore, the nature of inclusion is left up to the congregations to decide. The publisher of this book is Presbyterian in affiliation.
Togetherat the Table, therefore, is an attempt by the first Lesbian UMC Bishop to share her story, defend her position, and seek to find a path forward that doesn't lead to division (there is much talk about the UMC dividing). Whether the United Methodists, which is a global church, will divide remains to be seen, but things have gotten rather contentious (from my outsider’s vantagepoint). The very fact that the UMC is a global church, with its largest growth taking place in the Global South and in Asia, where social mores tend to be more conservative in the United States and Canada, needs to be kept in mind. If it were just the North American churches it might be easier to avert division. In any case, as I took up Karen Oliveto's book, I did so as an outsider. I am not UMC and therefore I don't have a stake in the debate. I'm supportive, of course, but I will not be directly affected.
The author, Karen Oliveto, is the Bishop of the Mountain Sky region (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho). That is one of the more conservative portions of the country politically, and yet they chose her to oversee these churches. Before that she served churches in New York and California, including the famously liberal Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Being the first person to break a barrier is always difficult. There will be scars. They are apparent and understandable.
Oliveto uses the image of the Lord's Table as the vehicle to share her story and invite both supporters and opponents to find unity at the table, without necessarily embracing uniformity on this and other issues. While I support that vision, it does seem that on both sides of the question of inclusion the positions are hardening. She speaks here of her sexuality being a non-essential where there can be room for disagreement. Again, I may agree with her, but many on both sides have made it an essential.
Her primary message here is that in the church we should exercise empathy and lean into the ambiguity of the situation. This is important—the leaning into ambiguity—because much of the debate centers on the way we read Scripture. Do we read it narrowly, applying ancient rules and roles that no longer fit our understandings of human life? United Methodists, for instance, do not support slavery, though some among them once did—on biblical grounds. United Methodists have long ordained women, though one can read Scripture to bar them from this role. So, in this day, how do we read scripture, which she and I wish to honor, in a way that allows contemporary knowledge to guide us?
Here again is where the Table image goes back into play. The closing chapter is titled "We Eat with People We Love." She starts out sharing why she and others like her do not leave the UMC for a more accommodating denomination. Her answer is simple she is born and bred UMC. This is the church that formed her, ordained her, and has given her life. She doesn't want to go elsewhere. She wants to continue eating at the family table with the people she loves, even if they don't agree with each other. We will see if the family can remain at table together. We're seeing in the political arena families divided over politics. The same is true of the church.
This is a very personal book, as might be expected. As I've said before, I think we're at the point that there are enough books that explore the relevant texts. Now it is the personal stories that are the most helpful. With Oliveto's book, I struggled at points simply because a lot of what she shares has to do with inner workings of the UMC and internal debates that do not affect me. I don't have to worry about the internal politics of the denomination, not only because I'm not gay. In my case, the issues are more congregational than denominational. That said, writing as an outsider, I hope she can forge bonds that do not break so as to have important conversations. But from a distance, this looks difficult. At the same time, even though the contexts might be different, I think this can be a helpful book even for non-UMC folks who are going through similar challenges.