In most ways Oliveto is like any other Methodist minister: She organizes church suppers, gives Communion, leads funerals, baptizes children, preaches the Christian gospel, and performs weddings -- she joined eight couples in the first 2 1/2 weeks of this month. But because those weddings were for same-sex partners, Oliveto's next steps, those of her bishop, and her bishop's superiors' will be followed with great interest by the oddly named Institute on Religion and Democracy, a lobbying group dedicated to using money from secular right-wing foundations to encourage dissent among conservative churchgoers in the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches. Oliveto explained during a press conference last week that because the weddings were not "holy unions" between same-sex couples -- which are expressly banned by United Methodist rules -- and instead were government-recognized "weddings" under Mayor Gavin Newsom's policy granting same-sex marriage licenses, she did not fall afoul of church doctrine.
Also last week, an unidentified church member objecting to Oliveto's actions filed a complaint with Northern California Methodist Bishop Beverly Shamana, setting in motion a long bureaucratic process that could result in Oliveto being defrocked for violating church rules. In the past, church officials have been allowed some leeway in such matters; five years ago 68 pastors simultaneously performed a union ceremony in Sacramento between two lesbians as a protest against the church's gay wedding ban. The event spawned complaints, formal hearings, and much consternation among United Methodists nationwide. But the pastors, one of whom was my father, were not punished.
Shamana was on leave last week and unavailable for comment. But she released a statement that seemed to leave her options open. "There are clear processes in the Book of Discipline which provide for ways that matters of this kind can be addressed and reviewed. As a Bishop of the church, I have been entrusted with upholding the Book of Discipline as it currently stands, a mantle that I embrace prayerfully, God being my helper," Shamana said.
Last Friday, the Institute on Religion and Democracy issued a press release making it known that it was scrutinizing Oliveto's actions, and any pending punishment for the Noe Valley reverend.
"I pray that Rev. Oliveto's bishop, Beverly Shamana, will uphold her ecclesial obligations and discipline Rev. Oliveto," the release quoted Mark Tooley, a former CIA analyst the IRD hired in 1994 to set up a front group called United Methodist Action, as saying. In an interview last week, Tooley suggested he would not be satisfied with a repeat of five years ago, when then-Bishop Melvin Talbert failed to discipline the pastors who joined high-ranking church lay leader Jeanne Barnett and her love, great-grandmother Ellie Charleton.
"I hope that the local bishop out there will uphold church law, but I would be surprised if she does that very vigorously, so we'll have to wait and see," Tooley said. "If the bishop does not act, I would hope the national church court will call a judicial council" -- a process that could lead to Oliveto being removed from the ministry.
On its face, this would seem a picayune tempest in a corner of the world far from most San Franciscans. Relatively few of us are regular churchgoers; I'm not. And Oliveto's church is small, with 50 or so congregants on a typical Sunday. A good argument could be made that Oliveto has earned her plight; she's convened multiple gay-marriage press conferences with herself as the centerpiece. Even Oliveto's former bishop, Talbert, an advocate for allowing gay weddings, says Oliveto's argument that gay marriages are not the same as gay holy unions is "stretching it."
Concerning Oliveto's attention from the IRD, there's nothing inherently wrong with conservative Christians advocating their viewpoint within the church of their choice. Nonetheless, San Franciscans should pay attention to this church war over gay marriage if we want our city's 2004 winter of love to become anything more than a passing Left Coast feel-good fest. The positions churches take on issues such as war, peace, poverty, racism, sexism -- and especially sexual morality issues such as gay marriage -- have an outsize effect on the sensibilities of the country at large.
What parishioners hear from the pulpit will weigh heavily on how they view the efforts of their president, a committed United Methodist, to use gay marriage as an election-year wedge issue. A San Francisco pastor has sought to publicize the fact that some leaders of the president's faith disagree with his stance, and in so doing has risked becoming the target of an unholy crusade. San Franciscans, both Christian and not, stand to profit by standing by her side.
While people who get their impressions of contemporary Christian theology from Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV show may believe that Christianity uniformly condemns same-sex love, the fact is modern theology allows plenty of wiggle room on issues such as this.
For many pastors, biblical criticisms of homosexuality fall into the same category as the Apostle Paul's instructions regarding women's hair length, say, or scriptural scolds against gossip. For these pastors, Old Testament Hebrew mores are overshadowed by Jesus Christ's New Testament lessons on love, brotherhood, and acceptance. These differences in interpretation of Scripture have spawned earnest, impassioned debate among mainline Christians. Yet if one asks a United Methodist or a Presbyterian about her opponents' opinions on this issue, she will likely give you a respectful description of how a fellow churchgoer is acting on his faith. In a spirit similar to the one that guides Jewish Talmudic debate, most of America's churches have been respectful of difference.
It's within this church spirit of vigorous civil discourse that the tactics behind the IRD's attempt to move mainstream churches to the right are troublesome. The IRD and its allies' strategy of using right-wing nonreligious foundation money to smear liberal church leaders through mailings, articles in IRD-aligned publications, press releases, and stories in secular newspapers and magazines has more in common with a CIA Third World destabilization campaign than ordinary civilized debate. During 2000 and 2001, IRD board member Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. spent $1 million on right-wing agitation in the Anglican Church that included an attempt to falsely defame that denomination's openly gay bishop, the Right Rev. Eugene Robinson, according to Salon.com. During that period, Ahmanson donated another half-million dollars directly to the IRD for similar work in all three of the group's target denominations. In the Presbyterian Church the IRD has fought, with some success, to include condemnation of homosexuality in an official church paper, The American Family. And in the Methodist Church, Mark Tooley has engaged in a vigorous direct-mail campaign to convince churchgoers that their more liberal bishops are not true Christians, and should be purged.