The United Methodist Church’s highest court has ruled that the consecration of its first openly gay bishop violated church law, compounding a bitter rift over homosexuality that has brought the 13-million-member denomination to the brink of schism.
In a 6-to-3 vote made public on Friday, the church’s Judicial Council found that a 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 bishop, Karen P. Oliveto of Denver, “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.
“Under the longstanding principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law,” the council ruled. “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.
“We won’t run back into the closet, and we won’t leave the church,” said the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, who is openly gay and serves as senior pastor at New Milford United Methodist Church in Connecticut, part of the New York region. “The only way that I will leave this denomination is if I am dragged out.”
Bishop Oliveto was elected by the church’s Western Jurisdiction last summer and assigned to oversee about 400 congregations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
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.
Bishop Oliveto did not respond to a phone message requesting an interview.
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.
He said that the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, who were gathering in Dallas in advance of a larger meeting of Methodist bishops, would meet on Saturday to assess the decision and respond.
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.
The denomination was deeply divided at the 2016 meeting of its General Conference, but averted fracture when bishops decided to appoint what they called a “Commission on a Way Forward” to propose a solution to the stalemate over issues of sexuality. The church announced this week that a special session of its General Conference, in St. Louis in February 2019, would be dedicated to resolving the church’s divisions over sexuality issues.
The Judicial Council heard arguments in Bishop Oliveto’s case on Tuesday at a hotel in Newark as more than 150 gay Methodist clergy and their supporters held a prayer vigil nearby and later celebrated communion in the hearing room.
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