The fate of the United Methodist Church’s first openly gay married bishop is in the hands of a church court.
Bishop Karen Oliveto, who was elected last summer, immediately saw her election challenged by a Midwestern laywoman who said it violated church law, which forbids the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Dixie Brewster of Milton, Kan., wants the court to invalidate the election.
The two women greeted one another and shook hands before Tuesday’s hearing before the Judicial Council, the denomination’s highest court. Nearly 200 people attended the hearing at a New Jersey hotel. It lasted almost three hours.
A ruling is expected within days.
With 12.8 million members, the United Methodist Church is the country’s third largest denomination. The church’s Book of Discipline states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” a doctrine that many members strongly support, including the denomination’s growing numbers in Africa.
Others, however, have long worked to overturn or relax what they consider archaic and bigoted theological views.
Church leaders have tried various tactics over the years to avoid an outright schism. On the eve on Tuesday’s hearing, its bishops announced a special session of the General Conference, the top policymaking body of the denomination, would be held in February 2019 in St. Louis to consider recommendations from a 32-member commission on how to “lead the church forward amid the impasse related to homosexuality.”
At the time of her election, Oliveto was a 58-year-old senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. She won on the 17th ballot with 88 votes from clergy and lay delegates from states representing the denomination’s Western Jurisdiction.
The denomination’s news story about Oliveto’s ceremony was headlined: “Married lesbian consecrated United Methodist bishop.” It reported the new bishop received a “resounding standing ovation” but noted: “As the first out lesbian to be elected a bishop, she is not receiving the same affirmation from across the denomination.”
That tension was palpable at Tuesday’s hearing. One side largely argued Oliveto’s election violated church law and the other argued that one United Methodist jurisdiction, or region, should not be allowed to overrule the decision of another. Brewster is from the South Central Jurisdiction, based in Oklahoma.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, an attorney and elder in the denomination’s Virginia Conference, argued Brewster’s case. In his opening brief, Boyette said the action by the Western Jurisdiction and “nomination, election, consecration of assignment of Karen Oliveto as bishop” violates church law and is, therefore, “null, void, and of no effect.”
A response filed on behalf the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops said the South Central Jurisdiction had no standing on the matter.
Under our polity and its unique separation of powers, each jurisdictional conference is constitutionally autonomous from the other jurisdictional conferences where episcopal elections are concerned. It is improper for one jurisdictional conference to challenge or otherwise interfere with the election, consecration and assignment of a bishop in another jurisdictional conference.
Brewster’s petition asks the Judicial Council for a “declaratory decision.”
Ahead of the hearing, Oliveto released a video asking for prayer.
“I love being your bishop,” she said.
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