United Methodist groups divided after election of first LGBT bishop

(RNS) The head of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops said the election of its first openly lesbian bishop last week "raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity."

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, said the executive committee of the bishops' council "is monitoring this situation very closely." The bishops are gathering Tuesday and Wednesday (July 19-20) in Chicago as part of the commission on sexuality called for by the General Conference.

On Friday (July 15), the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and consecrated the following day.

The election comes despite the denomination's ban on the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

At its quadrennial General Conference in May, the United Methodist Church had decided not to take up contentious issues regarding the full inclusion of its LGBT members. At the Council of Bishops' recommendation, the denomination agreed instead to create a commission to discuss the conflict over sexuality that could lead to a special session of the global conference in 2018 or 2019.

Ough maintained that still is "the best path."

Still, for advocates of full inclusion of LGBT United Methodists, last week's election was historic.

“I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God," Oliveto said after her election, according to reports by United Methodist News Service.

"I stand before you because of the work and prayers of so many, especially those saints who yearned to live for this day, who blazed a trail where there was none, who are no longer with us, and yet whose shoulders I stand on.”

Her election was met warmly by delegates at the conference, according to UMNS, but reaction from United Methodist groups around the country has been sharply divided.

The Reconciling Ministries Network released a statement from its executive director Matt Berryman celebrating it as "an historic moment in the movement of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) persons for spiritual and civil equality both in the church and the public square." The new bishop has served several terms as a Reconciling Ministries board member.

"Officially barred from so many churches and positions of spiritual leadership, queer persons may now see themselves as leaders of the body of Christ in the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States," Berryman said.

Meantime, the Rev. Rob Renfroe — president of Good News, which describes itself as an "orthodox" and "evangelical" movement within the denomination — was quoted in an article on Good News' website calling the move in spite of decisions made at this spring's global General Conference "deplorable."

“If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so,” Renfroe said.

Ough released a statement after Oliveto's election that read in part:

There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church. Others will no doubt have questions as we find ourselves in a place where we have never been. Still, others will likely see this election as disrupting or even rendering moot the purpose and work of the Commission currently being formed by the Council.

Still, more than 100 clergy and clergy candidates came out as openly LGBT before the General Conference, and the conference's decision not to decide hasn't stopped its U.S. conferences from making decisions on their own.

Two U.S. jurisdictions had considered a total of three openly gay candidates for 15 open bishop positions last week. The South Central Jurisdictional Conference later requested a declaratory decision from the denomination's Judicial Council on whether the election and consecration of an openly LGBT bishop is lawful.

The 56 regional annual conferences that make up those jurisdictions also have passed a mix of resolutions regarding the full inclusion of the denomination's LGBT members.

"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," Ough said. 

Oliveto, 58, has been a delegate to the General Conference twice and to the Jurisdictional Conference five times, and she is a board member of the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration.

She has been married to Robin Ridenour for two years, according to UMNS. They have been in a relationship since they met at a junior-high camp as counselors 17 years ago, it said.

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