The United Methodist Church's top court has ruled that the consecration of an openly gay pastor as bishop is against church law.
But in a somewhat muddled ruling that could reflect the ongoing struggle to determine how great a role LGBTQ members can play in the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the court also ruled that the Rev. Karen Oliveto, its first openly gay bishop, "remains in good standing."
The Judicial Council decision was announced April 28 at the end of a four-day meeting in Newark, N.J.
The Rev. Bruce Ough, president of the denomination's Council of Bishops, released a written statement imploring United Methodists to honor the council's decision.
"We acknowledge that the decision does not help to ease the disagreements, impatience and anxiety that permeates The United Methodist Church over the matter of human sexuality, and particularly this case," Ough said. "Our compassion and prayers of intercession extend to all those who are hurt, relieved, confused or fearful."
The decision follows Oliveto's consecration last July as bishop of the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky Area, which includes churches in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, as well as one church in Idaho.
Oliveto was not named in the motion filed by Dixie Brewster, a lay delegate to last year’s regional South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
Instead, Brewster asked for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on whether the nomination, election, assignment or consecration of an openly gay or lesbian bishop is lawful under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.
But the bishop was the focus of the council's open hearing on Tuesday in Newark, the United Methodist News Service reported.
A representative for Brewster had argued the regional Western Jurisdiction's actions in making Oliveto a bishop "negate, ignore and violate" the Book of Discipline.
Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction representative maintained that Oliveto met all the requirements to become bishop and that the South Central Jurisdiction had no standing to challenge her election.
The Judicial Council agreed to rule only on Oliveto's consecration, saying it didn't have jurisdiction over the appointment, election or nomination of a bishop. It decided 6-3 that it was not lawful for any regional church body to consecrate a "self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop."
That language comes from the Book of Discipline, which says "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," meaning "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be ordained as ministers or appointed to serve.
Additionally, the decision said that while "self-avowal does not nullify the consecration and cause removal from episcopal office," it is enough to subject the bishop's office to review. It also raised the possibility an "openly homosexual and partnered bishop," as well as any clergy who participated in his or her consecration, could be charged with disobedience.
Meanwhile, Oliveto will remain a bishop until an administrative or judicial process is finished.
John Lomperis, a 2016 General Conference delegate and United Methodist director of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a group that describes itself as a voice for "Christian orthodoxy," said in a written statement he was disappointed the council hadn't removed the bishop from office.
But, Lomperis said, "I celebrate that these landmark rulings should now make it significantly easier to bring accountability for pastors who choose to violate biblical standards for sexual self-control. We are slowly but increasingly strengthening biblical accountability in our church."
To the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, senior pastor of New Milford United Methodist Church in New Milford, Conn., and a member of the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, it seemed like the Judicial Council was legislating from the bench, furthering divisions in the denomination and undermining the work of a commission already tasked with discussing questions of human sexuality. Still, as rumors of a looming schism continue to swirl, he told RNS the caucus was committed to the United Methodist Church.
"We're out of the closet but not out of the church," he said.
Earlier this week, the United Methodist Church announced it would hold a special session in 2019 to make decisions about the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. Its top legislative body had put off such decisions at its quadrennial meeting last year.
Instead, the 2016 General Conference directed the denomination's Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to discuss those questions. The special session in St. Louis will receive the bishops' report on the commission's work and act on it.
The commission's moderators issued a statement before the Judicial Council reached its decision, saying that it would continue its work and that the outcome of Friday's decision was not its focus.
"We urge the entire church to stay focused on the Commission’s work as our best opportunity to determine God’s leading for the church," according to the statement.
The Judicial Council had considered three cases this week that impact LGBTQ clergy.
It also ruled the denomination's regional New York and Northern Illinois annual conferences must consider all qualifications of a candidate for ministry, UMNS reported. Both previously had decided they would not consider sexuality when evaluating candidates.
Ough, the president of the Council of Bishops, reinforced Friday that only the General Conference can change the Book of Discipline and that the Judicial Council’s decisions are case-specific.
"Where do we go from here?" he said.
"We put our trust in God to strengthen us even as we hold differing views about human sexuality. We must continue to love one another just as Christ instructed us to do."
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