The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto is still bishop of the Mountain Sky Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes Montana.
That much is clear one week after the UMC’s Judicial Council ruled that consecrating a gay bishop violates church law. But confusion still remains about the complex decision handed down by the denomination’s judiciary body.
The 19-page decision, which came on a 6-3 vote, was in response to questions concerning the legality of the nomination, election, consecration and assignment of a gay bishop. Oliveto was not named in the complaint.
She is, however, the first and only openly gay woman to serve as a bishop of the UMC. Oliveto was elected last July and assigned to oversee an area that includes Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and a sliver of Idaho.
After her election at the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, Oliveto was consecrated by the jurisdiction’s College of Bishops. She previously served as pastor of the 11,000-member Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
Oliveto began her tenure on Sept. 1. But soon after her election by the Western Jurisdictional Conference, a complaint was filed with the Judicial Council.
A hearing was held in New Jersey on April 25, with the decision handed down three days later. The Judicial Council ruled only on the question of the bishop’s consecration.
“It is not lawful for the college of bishops of any jurisdiction or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop,” the decision said, citing the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
Up until the decision, the Book of Discipline more narrowly referred to people as homosexual if they publicly declared to denomination officials that they were homosexual and engaged in sexual acts with a person of the same gender.
The recent decision expanded that to say: “A same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities together with the clergy person’s status in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
That’s where the confusion comes in, said Richard Marsh, the attorney who represented the Western Jurisdiction in the hearing. Oliveto remains in good standing, he said, and “a lot of language in the decision confuses her with a hypothetical future case.”
Marsh referred to a section of the decision that said until a process is completed to decide if a clergy person meets the criteria of a self-avowed practicing homosexual, he or she remains in good standing.
It reads: “There is no provision in The [Book of} Discipline making it lawful to deny consecration to a duly elected episcopal candidate in good standing without fair and due process, even if there are serious concerns about his or her same-sex marital status at the time of consecration.”
Because Oliveto hasn’t been part of such a process, she remains in good standing, Marsh said.
The Judicial Council acknowledged that she was in good standing, eligible for election and therefore had to be consecrated after she was elected, he said.
He sees the decision more applicable to “the hypothetical election of an LGBTQ bishop in the future, and outlined procedures that need to be followed well before that person could become a candidate for bishop.”
The expanded language is forward-looking, maintained Marsh, who lamented its effect on other LBGTQ clergy.
“Any clergy in a same-sex marriage faces the fear of somebody digging up the license and filing charges and forcing that person to say ‘I am not engaged in sex,’ which is kind of an incredible turn,” Marsh said.
In a statement released the day of the ruling, the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops said the decision mirrors a conflict in the denomination.
“The ruling is long and complicated, reinforcing the reality that the church is not of one mind about inclusion of LGBTQI people and practices outside heterosexual marriage,” the bishops said.
The statement went on to say that while the Judicial Council ordered a review of Oliveto’s qualifications for ministry, “the Western Jurisdiction is in the process of responding to complaints filed” after her election.
“This process will continue according to the provisions of our Book of Discipline,” the bishops said.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, the largest orthodox renewal movement in the UMC, differed from Marsh in his interpretation of the council’s decision.
“We’re grateful that they ruled that Karen Oliveto’s consecration was unlawful, which the Book of Discipline clearly states,” Renfroe said. “We wish they had been able to indicate that she should be removed immediately.”
He is frustrated that the Judicial Council turned the matter back over “to the very people who elected her and who consecrated her.”
“And they did so knowing she was living in contrast to what the Book of Discipline says,” Renfroe said. “We have a track record with the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, and it’s not one where they address matters swiftly or, in my opinion, with integrity.”
By electing Oliveto and then consecrating her, Renfroe said, the Western Jurisdiction has made it “very clear how dire our differences are and how difficult it will be to move forward together.”
'2 churches ... 1 body'
In 2016, the UMC’s Council of Bishops created the Commission on a Way Forward, representing all sides of the denomination, to scrutinize and possibly recommend revisions to the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. The bishops have called a special General Conference for Feb. 23-26, 2019, to consider the recommendations in the commission’s report.
The commission was an effort to find common ground between the progressive and orthodox sides of the UMC. Renfroe doesn’t believe that is possible.
"There was no decision good or bad that was going to change the state of the United Methodist Church," he said. "And that is we are fractured and broken, and we find ourselves two churches that are within one body."
He hopes the commission will come up with a way for two sides with irreconcilable differences to go their separate ways.
“Let’s stop fighting,” he said. “Let’s create a solution that’s no-win, no-lose, where no one is punished, we set each other free, take our own property assets and are free to go our own ways.”
Oliveto, who has been at the center of the storm, has spent the past week at the Council of Bishops’ meeting in Dallas. Waiting for the decision was hard, she said, adding that it’s part of a faith journey.
She was struck that the Judicial Council appears as conflicted as the rest of the UMC when it comes to the role of LGBTQ people.
“Yet through all of this, the Holy Spirit has been incredibly precious to me and the people I’ve worked with,” she said. “I felt very sustained by the prayers of people, not just my colleagues, but literally United Methodists around the world.”
Oliveto is worried about what the ruling will mean for young people who feel called to the ministry but are gay.
“Is their call going to be affirmed in the United Methodist Church or not?” she said.
Oliveto is looking forward to continuing her work as bishop of the Big Sky Area. In the past seven months she has “fallen head over heels in love with the clergy and laity and the vital ministry I’ve seen there.”
She said she wants to help strengthen churches, giving them the resources they need to be agents of God’s transforming love in their communities.
“God has put a vision in our hearts in the work we do together,” Oliveto said. “The clergy and I continue to be inspired by each other to roll up our sleeves and dig even deeper into the work ahead of us.”