The United Methodist Church is to hold a hearing tomorrow to consider the future of a married lesbian who was elected as a bishop.
San Francisco pastor Karen Oliveto was elected unanimously to serve as bishop of the UMC Western Jurisdiction last year, in spite of official rules which ban LGBT ministers from serving openly.
Bishop Oliveto is married to her partner of 17 years, angering conservatives within the church who strongly opposed equal marriage.
The bishop has already been consecrated to lead the 400 churches in her jurisdiction, but members of the UMC’s South Central Jurisdiction, which spans Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas – filed an objection, alleging she is ineligible for the role.
The challenge to her election will be heard by The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church tomorrow, as it considers demands to disqualify her.
The Denver Post reports that Methodists from Bishop Oliveto’s jurisdiction are holding a “round-the-clock prayer vigil” ahead of the hearing, in order to show their support for her.
Speaking to the Post, Bishop Oliveto said: “[No matter the outcome] there will be people who are hurt and angry.
“I don’t know how you prepare. What I do know is that I will remain faithful to God’s claim on my life. I know I will need to be an agent of healing.”
One of her supporters, Colorado pastor Rev. Kent Ingram, said he became convinced about equality when he realised young LGBT people “thought there was no place for them in God’s love”.
He fears that a decision to sack the Bishop may lead to a split, adding: “I’m not sure if it will lead to schism in the church immediately, but it may eventually.”
Rev Ingram added: “I believe that God has worked around the church to move us to a more inclusive and loving position, as God did with women and persons of colour.
“One day we will look back at this and wonder why in the world we fought so bitterly over this issue.”
A UMC statement confirmed: “The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church will conduct an oral hearing on April 25 in response to a request for a declaratory decision regarding the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as bishop of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage or civil union.
“The request for a decision came from the South Central Jurisdictional Conference and is related to the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto by the Western Jurisdiction in July 2016.
“Oliveto is the first bishop to be elected who is in a same-sex marriage. The request is focused on specific provisions of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church–the book of rules and structure of the Church–and the constitutionality, application, meaning or effect of those provisions.”
Methodist conduct rules state: “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
A decision is expected on April 28.
A rift in the Church has been deepening for some time.
Last year a group of 111 United Methodist Church clergy came out as gay to senior church officials in defiance of the rules, after threats of punishment against a lesbian pastor in Kansas.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, warned previously: “Being a self-avowed, practising homosexual is a chargeable offence for any clergyperson in The United Methodist Church, if indeed this is the case.
“The Council of Bishops is monitoring this situation very closely. Our differences are real and cannot be glossed over, but they are also reconcilable.
“We are confident God is with us, especially in uncharted times and places. There is a future with hope.”