Church braces for ruling on gay bishop

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From prayer vigils to press releases, plenty of evidence suggests keen interest in and deep concern about a looming United Methodist Judicial Council decision on whether a gay pastor can serve as bishop.

The oral hearing will be Tuesday, April 25, in Newark, New Jersey, with a ruling expected a few days later. The outcome could affect the status of Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto, a lesbian married to another woman. The Western Jurisdictional Conference elected Oliveto to the episcopacy last summer.

The denomination’s longstanding, deep divisions over homosexuality already have led to creation of the Commission on a Way Forward, charged with reviewing church law on sexuality and searching for ways to maintain unity.

Church leaders acknowledge that however the Judicial Council rules after Tuesday’s hearing, tensions could be heightened.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, said in a statement that “there is great interest, disagreement and anxiety about the anticipated decision of the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church.” The Council of Bishops is meeting April 30-May 5 in Dallas.

Ough asked United Methodists to set fear aside and trust that the Holy Spirit is working through the Way Forward Commission and the Judicial Council.

He’s among church leaders calling for prayer, as is Los Angeles Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

“No matter what the decision is, we know some among us will not agree,” Hagiya said in a letter to church members in his area. “Some will feel hurt. Some will feel distanced from the church. That is why we must be in prayer for one another and for our church.”

“The bishops of the Western Jurisdiction believe that Bishop Oliveto’s election and assignment to the Mountain Sky Area is valid,” Hagiya wrote.

Other Western Jurisdiction bishops sent identical or very similar letters to their church members. The Western Jurisdiction also released an information sheet about the Judicial Council case.   

Expecting a crowd

The South Central Jurisdictional Conference filed the petition, asking the Judicial Council to rule on whether church law allows the election, consecration and assignment of a bishop in a same-sex marriage.

Various briefs have been submitted — some questioning the South Central Jurisdiction’s standing in the case, others arguing that Oliveto’s election should be invalidated under church law prohibiting “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy.

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One indication of the case’s high profile is that the Judicial Council has arranged for a much larger room than is usually used for oral arguments. The Hilton Hotel at Newark Penn Station also is providing an overflow room, where closed-circuit TV will show the proceedings.

Up to 330 people can be accommodated, and the Greater New Jersey Conference will be providing ushers. The Judicial Council has arranged for private security, another unusual step.

Oliveto is expected to attend the hearing, accompanied by Western Jurisdiction colleagues Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Bishop Robert Hoshibata.

Bishops have been issuing statements trying to prepare church members for the ruling. For example, the Southeastern Judicial Council College of Bishops put out a Q&A with specifics on the case and general information about how the Judicial Council works.

Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference, in the South Central Jurisdiction, offered caution in a letter to church members. He said the “definitive word” on where the church stands regarding sexuality will rest with a proposed called session of General Conference in 2019, acting on recommendations from the Commission on a Way Forward.

“That is why it is critically important for all persons on all sides of the issue to hold steady, even if that is hard to do,” Mueller said.

Cabinet leaders and lay leaders of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences — which comprise the Mountain Sky Area — have issued their own Q&A about the hearing.

The Mountain Sky Area is planning an April 23-29 prayer vigil for the Judicial Council’s work.

Reconciling Ministries Network, which supports full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the denomination, is among the advocacy groups addressing the hearing. Another is the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, which put out an Easter letter strongly backing Oliveto.

“It saddens me to know that her leadership is challenged, not because of her capacity, her abilities, but because of her orientation,” the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, a caucus leader, said by phone.

Da Silva Souto noted that his group is closely following two other Judicial Council cases this session, dealing with decisions of law related to gay clergy and boards of ordained ministry in the New York and Northern Illinois conferences.

The Africa Initiative has issued a call inviting all local churches, districts, annual and provisional conferences in Africa in particular to pray and fast from April 24 to April 28.

“The purpose of this season of fasting and prayer is to intercede on behalf of the Judicial Council and the Commission on the Way Forward as they seek divine wisdom and scriptural guidance in their decision-making process to the glory of God, and in the best interest of the global church,” the letter said. It was sent by the Rev. Jerry Kulah, general coordinator of the Africa Initiative, an unofficial movement of African clergy and lay leaders formed prior to General Conference 2012.

One of the goals of the initiative has been to maintain the church’s current ordination rules and definition of marriage. 

ʽHoly waiting’

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a United Methodist evangelical group, will be meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, April 28-29, meaning it could be in session when the Judicial Council decision is announced.

The Rev. Jeffrey Greenway, a leader of the group, said the timing was coincidental. But he said the hearing is definitely on his mind and that of other WCA members. He’s praying for the various parties involved, but said he hopes the Judicial Council invalidates Oliveto’s election.

“She is a bishop of the whole United Methodist Church, while publicly embracing and advocating a lifestyle that is contrary to our polity in terms of licensing, ordination and appointment of clergy,” Greenway said. “For her to remain in her role would make (denominational) unity exponentially more difficult.”

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, another unofficial evangelical group, agreed.

“There would just be many evangelicals who could not live in a church that allows not just individuals, but one of our episcopal leaders, to adopt a lifestyle contrary to the scriptures,” he said.

Oliveto herself put out a video in an advance of the hearing, noting that many in the church are figuratively holding their breath until there’s an outcome.

She argued that the better approach is to stay busy in ministry.

“In this time of holy waiting, may we continue to build our relationships as we seek to extend God’s love, God’s compassion and God’s grace in the word, in ways that people want to become a part of,” she said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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