UMC Lesbian Bishop Still in Office Months After Church Court Ruling Against Her

Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the United Methodist Church, at her consecration service July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the United Methodist Church, at her consecration service July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. | (Photo: Charmaine Robledo)

 A lesbian bishop of the United Methodist Church is still in office months after the denomination's highest court ruled that there should be a process to remove her.

In April, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled 6–3 that Bishop Karen Oliveto's election to oversee the Mountain Sky Area of the UMC violated the Church's ban on noncelibate homosexual clergy.

Charmaine Robledo, spokeswoman for the Mountain Sky Area, told The Christian Post last week that "it is inaccurate" to say that "there is a process of removal of Bishop Oliveto from her position as bishop in The United Methodist Church."

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"The Judicial Council's decision in April upholds her nomination, election and assignment," said Robledo, adding that Oliveto recently began "her second year as the Episcopal leader of the Mountain Sky Area."

James Kang, spokesman for Bishop Grant Hagiya, who serves as president of the Western Jurisdiction Council of Bishops, told CP that while a "new complaint supervising committee has been formed since" the Judicial Council's decision, as of Wednesday "there is nothing to report at this time."

In July of last year, the UMC Western Jurisdiction unanimously elected Oliveto to be bishop of the UMC Mountain Sky Area, making her the first openly gay bishop in the UMC.

Soon after her election, a complaint was filed against her, arguing that as a practicing lesbian she was in violation of the UMC Book of Discipline's ban on noncelibate homosexual clergy.

On April 28, the Judicial Council ruled against Oliveto, concluding that while she will remain "in good standing" pending "the bishop's ministerial office to review."

"Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore, or negate Church law," ruled the majority.

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

In June, the jurisdiction requested a reconsideration of the ruling. Richard Marsh, counsel to the Western Jurisdiction, said in a statement that the brief was meant to help advance acceptance of the LGBT community within the church.

"The Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops believes it has an obligation to the wider LGBT community within the Church and beyond to point out the fundamental errors contained in this decision," stated Marsh.

However, the following month, the Judicial Council rejected the motion, stating in an email sent to all parties that the ruling was going to stand.

Oliveto's election has been a divisive one, with many churches in the Mountain Sky Area reporting sharp drops in membership and financial contributions since she took office.

The Institute on Religion & Democracy corresponded with many congregations from the region and noted that these declines were greater than the usual decreases found in recent years.

"What makes the Oliveto election significant is that — in many of these congregations — there has been a sudden accelerated decline in the relatively brief time since she was appointed to oversee the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area in September [2016]," explained Jeff Walton of IRD in an interview with CP from February.

"Ultimately, the problems in the Western Jurisdiction are similar to what plagues many Mainline Protestant churches: a lack of confidence in the authority of Scripture leading to an inability to critique the prevailing culture which surrounds us."

Pastor Karen Disney, who oversees two United Methodist congregations in the Mountain Sky Area, told CP in an interview last week that Oliveto has received a mixed reaction.

"While a few people were upset and have left the Church, others rejoiced and have joined the Church," said Disney, who acknowledged that one of her churches "has been somewhat impacted financially by the election of Bishop Oliveto."

"While we of course mourn the loss of those who feel this is a deciding factor on whether they can continue to be United Methodists, we have embraced those who are welcoming and supportive of the LGBT Christian community."

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