Methodists to decide whether openly gay woman can serve as bishop
NEW YORK | Karen Oliveto clutched a friend’s hand, closed her eyes and wept when she learned last year that she had been elected a bishop of the United Methodist Church.
Bishop Oliveto, who is married to another woman, had become the denomination’s first openly gay bishop.
Within minutes, a formal complaint was filed challenging her election as contrary to the church ban on clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — a petition that the highest Methodist judicial authorities agreed to consider.
On Tuesday, the court will take up the closely watched case, the latest flashpoint over LGBT rights in a denomination splintering over the Bible and homosexuality.
“It highlights very greatly that we are two different churches and that the real difference is whether or not we’re going to live by the covenant that we each have agreed to,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, who leads Good News, a caucus of evangelical Methodists that has lobbied to uphold current teaching.
Said Bishop Oliveto: “I’m in deep prayer, reminding myself of what God has called me to do.”
Bishop Oliveto, who is based in the Denver area, will attend the hearing in Newark, New Jersey, accompanied by fellow bishops from the church’s Western Jurisdiction, her wife, mother and childhood pastor. LGBT clergy and their supporters plan to pray outside and wear T-shirts listing the first names only of gay clergy who would risk losing their ministerial credentials by coming out.
The goal is to underscore the human cost of church policy, said the Rev. Lea Matthews of the LGBT advocacy group Methodists in New Directions. Prayer vigils are planned in the Methodist Mountain Sky Area region, which Bishop Oliveto leads, while others will join a prayer vigil online.
The court, or Judicial Council, is expected to issue a ruling a few days later.
The 12.8-million-member church, the third-largest in the U.S., was already in turmoil over same-sex relationships when Bishop Oliveto was elected. Methodists approved language in 1972 calling same-sex relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The top church policy-making body, or General Conference, has upheld that policy ever since, even as LGBT rights gained acceptance and other mainline Protestants, including the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), approved same-sex marriage. In recent years, the Methodists have seen their greatest growth overseas, especially in Africa, among more theologically conservative people, who have been standing with U.S. evangelical Methodists against recognizing samegender relationships.
Deeply frustrated, Methodist LGBT advocates have stepped up pressure for new policies, holding same-sex weddings in defiance of church prohibitions and coming out as gay and lesbian from the pulpit. Conservatives responded by intensifying demands for church discipline over such actions.