Bishop Karen P Oliveto, above, was elected by the United Methodist Church’s Western Jurisdiction last summer and assigned to oversee about 400 congregations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
This caused outrage, and – according to this report – her election was immediately challenged by the church’s South Central Jurisdiction, which argued that the decision violated the church’s ban on ordaining gay people.
This week the church’s highest court agreed – and ruled that the consecration of its first openly gay bishop violated church law.
In a 6-to-3 vote made public yesterday (Friday), the church’s Judicial Council found that the married lesbian bishop and those who consecrated her were in violation of their:
Commitment to abide by and uphold the church’s definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality.
Still, the court ruled that the Denver bishop “remains in good standing” pending further proceedings, offering her supporters a glimmer of hope. But it also raised the prospect of a suspension or forced retirement.
The council said:
Under the longstanding principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law. It is not lawful for the College of Bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.
The Judicial Council also decided, in separate rulings, that the New York and Illinois regions must ask candidates for the ministry about their sexuality and rule out:
Those who are gay or in any other way violating the church’s standards on marriage and sexuality.
The boards of ordained ministry in those regions announced last year that they would not discriminate against candidates based on sexuality or gender, but the Judicial Council ordered them to drop that practice.
Said the Rev Alex da Silva Souto, above, who is openly gay and serves as senior pastor at New Milford United Methodist Church in Connecticut, part of the New York region:
We won’t run back into the closet, and we won’t leave the church. The only way that I will leave this denomination is if I am dragged out.
Stephen Drachler, a spokesman for the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops, called the Judicial Council’s decision a “mixed bag.” While it was “disappointing and disturbing” that Bishop Oliveto’s consecration was found to be in violation of church law, he said, “she remains a bishop of the church” for now.
The country’s third-largest religious denomination, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church adopted language in 1972 declaring that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained because:
The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Methodists have debated that language every four years at meetings of the church’s top decision-making body, the General Conference.
In recent years, more and more Methodist ministers have flouted the denomination’s restrictions and performed same-sex weddings. In addition, more than 150 have publicly come out as gay, risking their positions if there is a churchwide crackdown, according to the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, an advocacy and support group. The caucus says it knows of another 30 Methodist clergy who are gay but have chosen for now not to reveal their sexual orientation.
Bishop Oliveto, a longtime leader in the church’s gay advocacy groups, was the first woman to serve as senior pastor of one of the denomination’s 100 largest churches, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. She was also an associate dean at the Pacific School of Religion, an ecumenical seminary in Berkeley, California.
Raised as a Methodist in Babylon, New York, she preached her first sermon at age 16. She married her partner, a nurse anaesthetist and church deaconess, in 2014.
She was elected last July on the 17th ballot from a field of nine candidates, on a vote of 88 in favour, none opposed and 12 abstentions.
Her election was formally contested by the church’s South Central Jurisdiction, which includes eight states from Nebraska to Texas. The evangelical wing of the church saw her election as an open act of defiance.
Said John S A Lomperis, the United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative advocacy group.
The Western Jurisdiction was basically giving the middle finger to the rest of the church.
At the Judicial Council’s hearing in Newark, the Rev Keith Boyette, a pastor in Virginia and a lawyer who was representing the South Central Jurisdiction, argued that Bishop Oliveto’s election openly violated rules about homosexuality in the church’s Book of Discipline.
In an interview late Friday, shortly before the council’s ruling was made public, Boyette said:
The Western Jurisdiction’s decision to elect an openly gay bishop was contrary to the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and therefore their act in electing that person was null, void and of no effect. It was as if it had never occurred.