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Methodist Court: Consecration of Lesbian Bishop Violated Church Law

Karen Oliveto
Karen Oliveto in AP Photo

The Judicial Council's ruling on the United Methodist Church's first lesbian bishop highlights the church's division on LGBT issues.

A United Methodist Church court has ruled that the consecration of an out lesbian bishop violated denominational law.

The bishop, Karen P. Oliveto, remains in her post, but further proceedings could result in her suspension or forced retirement, The New York Times reports.

The church's Judicial Council, its highest court, announced the 6-3 ruling Friday. It found that Oliveto and the denomination's Western Jurisdiction, which consecrated her, violated their "commitment to abide by and uphold the church's definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality."

"Under the longstanding principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law," the ruling read. "It is not lawful for the College of Bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop."

The Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Oliveto last year in defiance of church law, making her the first member of the LGBT population to become a Methodist bishop. She was assigned to oversee about 400 churches in several western states.

The South Central Jurisdiction quickly challenged her election, leading to Friday's ruling, the Times reports. The Judicial Council heard the case Tuesday in Newark, N.J.

Oliveto's future is now in the hands of her fellow bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, as the Judicial Council ordered them to review her status. Before becoming a bishop, she was pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco an associate dean of the ecumenical Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. She is married to another clergy member, Rev. Robin Ridenour.

In separate rulings, the Judicial Council ordered boards of ordained ministry in New York and Illinois to ask candidates for the ministry about their sexuality and reject those would are LGBT "or in any other way violating the church's standards on marriage and sexuality." The boards had adopted an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy last year, but the council ordered them to reverse that, according to the Times.

The United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., has been deeply divided over LGBT issues. Methodist doctrine states that "the practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching," but there are many openly LGBT, partnered clergy members in the denomination. At the church's General Conference in 2016, delegates decided to delay action on changing this policy, with the hierarchy instead setting up a special commission to study issues of sexuality. The General Conference is usually held every four years, but this week the church announced it will hold a special session in February 2019 in St. Louis to deal with sexuality issues, the Times reports.

Oliveto did not respond to a Times request for an interview, and other bishops of the Western Jurisdiction planned to release a response today. Several supporters of LGBT inclusion, however, denounced the Judicial Council's decision.

Its "reassertion of the system-wide discrimination that targets LGBTQ people compounds the weight and force of our punitive language and policies," Matt Berryman, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for LGBT equality in the denomination, wrote in a Saturday blog post. "We must never lose sight of the tremendous scandal that lies at the heart of the church's policies embedded in disgust, shame, and fear. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any excuse or justifiable reason to condone or sanction the mistreatment of LGBTQ persons."

He expressed hope, though, about the upcoming special session of the General Conference. The Judicial Council rulings, he predicted, are mere "stops along the way to inclusion and the eventual victory of the all embracing gospel of Jesus Christ."

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