This Decision Against a Gay Bishop Could Split the Methodist Church

“It is not lawful…to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.”

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

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Update, 5/8/2017: Bishop Karen Oliveto says that she is grateful for “overwhelming support” for her continued leadership in the United Methodist Church. “It’s been really powerful—I’ve learned that people in the pews are really in a different place than the rules of our church,” she told Mother Jones.

Oliveto added that she does not want to see the church schism. She wants LGBT people and young members of the church to know that “they are one of God’s beloved” and “God will find a way where there is none.”

In a 6-to-3 vote that was made public on Friday, April 28, the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council—its highest court—ruled that the elevation in 2016 of Karen Oliveto to bishop was in violation of church law, because she is married to another woman.

“Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore, or negate church law,” the decision states. “It is not lawful for the college of bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.”

However, Oliveto “remains in good standing” with the church, according to the decision, until an administrative or judicial process can be completed.

Oliveto is the church’s first openly-gay bishop, and her election last July was hailed as a major step forward by LGBT advocates both within and outside the Methodist Church. She serves as bishop of the Mountain Sky region, which comprises Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and one church in Idaho. A challenge was filed almost immediately after the appointment to the position by the South Central Jurisdiction because of the church’s longstanding policy regarding Oliveto’s sexual orientation.

Language in the church’s Book of Discipline states “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are not eligible for leadership within the church because they have committed a sin by engaging in same-sex relationships. This language has divided members for many years. However, at the Methodist Church’s General Conference last year, the topic came to a head, and bishops appointed a “Commission on the Way Forward” to make a unified decision to settle the debate over LGBT issues going forward. There will be a special session in February 2019 to resolve this question, and it’s possible that the church may schism over it.

“Bishop Karen Oliveto remains our bishop as long as United Methodists across the connection maintain their commitment to building an inclusive church,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that works toward fostering acceptance of LGBT persons within the Methodist Church. “We are enduring the labor pains that anticipate new life, and we will not falter.”

When I interviewed Oliveto for a profile in Mother Jones last year, we talked about her sexuality and the challenges she experienced in her church. Here’s what she said:

Oliveto knows that many in her religious community consider homosexuality a sin and justify this belief with biblical references. She acknowledges “there are six or seven passages that may or may not be about homosexuality,” but points out “we have a lot more on economic justice…on what it means to live and love, and to me, those are the things we ought to be focusing on.” The fundamental question, for Oliveto, involves God’s love: “If you’re going to tell me that my love is wrong, I’m concerned about the church and its ability to recognize God. Because we believe God is love and love is of God. So if you’re telling me that my love is invalid, then what is that saying about your understanding of God?”

As of publication time, Bishop Oliveto had not responded to a request for comment.

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