United Methodist ‘supreme court’ set to rule on fate of first openly gay bishop

“No one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry,” she said of the hearing.

CREDIT: AP/David Zalubowski
CREDIT: AP/David Zalubowski

Members of the United Methodist Church (UMC) are awaiting an imminent ruling on whether an openly gay woman can continue to serve as a bishop — a first for the country’s largest mainline Christian denomination.

The trial revolves around Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, who was elected as bishop last July by the UMC’s Western Jurisdiction. Internal church politics rarely capture national interest, but Oliveto’s elevation was unusual: She identifies as lesbian and is married to another woman, making her the first openly gay bishop in the denomination’s history.

LGBTQ advocates within the church celebrated the results, but opponents noted that the UMC’s Book of Discipline — the group’s guiding document for internal affairs — officially prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” claiming homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It was less than a week before the church’s South Central Jurisdictional Conference filed a petition asking leaders to determine whether Oliveto can be considered a bishop.

Nearly a year later, the decision now rests with the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s highest court, which convened an oral hearing on the subject earlier this week in Newark, New Jersey. The council is expected to offer an official ruling sometime before Monday.

“Making heterosexuality a requirement for ordained ministry instead of asking whether someone possesses the gifts and graces for ministry denies God’s infinite imagination that is evidenced through the lives of God’s diverse children.”

“What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy,” Oliveto said in a statement posted to her blog and delivered during a press conference after the hearing. “And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking.”

She went on to argue that LGBTQ people have served within the church for years, but were forced to keep their orientation a secret.

“Making heterosexuality a requirement for ordained ministry instead of asking whether someone possesses the gifts and graces for ministry denies God’s infinite imagination that is evidenced through the lives of God’s diverse children,” she said.

Matt Berryman, executive director of Methodist LGBTQ advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, voiced support for the bishop.

“The election of Bishop Karen Oliveto is a sign of hope for so may LGBTQ persons who long for a fully inclusive United Methodist Church,” he said in a statement ahead of the hearing. “Her identity as the first openly lesbian bishop proves that, in spite of the church’s discriminatory policies and practices, the walls of exclusion crumbling before our very eyes.”

The debate before the ecclesiastical court centers on two separate issues: whether Oliveto’s openness about her sexuality violates church rules, and whether the South Central Jurisdictional Conference has standing to challenge the election of a bishop in another conference in the first place (Oliveto was elected to the Mountain Sky Area, a different region). Even if the court rules against the bishop on both counts, the UMC’s news service notes that she wouldn’t be stripped of her credentials immediately — that would likely require an entirely separate trial within her own region, which would be subject to an appeal.

The technicalities may sound mundane, but they’ve been used to protect pro-LGBTQ pastors in the past. In October 2014, Rev. Frank Schaefer was reinstated as a UMC minister after being defrocked the year before for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding — a victory won on a judicial technicality.

Meanwhile, Oliveto’s trial thrusts her into the middle of an ongoing dispute within the UMC over LGBTQ identities, with supporters of equality growing increasingly vocal in recent years. In 2014, bishops began refusing to bring charges against ordained ministers clergy who come out as LGBT, and other clergy started officiating same-sex weddings in groups in direct defiance of church teaching.

Pro-LGBTQ activism only accelerated ahead of the UMC’s 2016 General Conference, a quadrennial gathering where leaders vote on various issues impacting the denomination’s roughly 12 million members worldwide. Within the span of a few months, a Methodist minister began sleeping in a tent to protest what he described as the church’s anti-LGBT stance, another pastor in Kansas came out as a lesbian to her congregation during worship, and more than 100 UMC clergy signed on to a letter declaring their LGBTQ identity to the world. When the church finally began the Conference in June, more than 2,500 UMC clergy had already signed a letter saying they would both ordain LGBTQ people and refuse to replace ministers removed from pulpits because of their sexuality — both direct violations of the Book of Discipline.

The controversy reached a tipping point during the conference, when delegates found a way to essentially delay debate on the subject: they narrowly voted to form a commission primarily tasked with whether the denomination should allow for LGBT ordination and same-sex marriage.

Earlier this week, UMC Council of Bishops announced that the findings of that committee — called the Commission on the Way Forward — will be discussed and voted on during a special session of General Conference held in 2019.

In the meantime, however, trials similar to Oliveto’s continue for LGBTQ clergy. Rev. Anna Blaedel, a minister in Iowa City, Iowa, is now facing a complaint for officiating the marriage of two women in April of this year, according to the Reconciling Ministries Network.

UPDATE: The Judicial Council ruled against Oliveto on Friday evening in a 6-to-3 vote, declaring that the bishop and those who elected her were in violation of their “commitment to abide by and uphold the church’s definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality,” according to the New York Times.

“It is not lawful for the college of bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop,” the ruling stated.

Oliveto remains a bishop for the time being, although her future remains unclear.