Defying decades-old church law, representatives of the United Methodist Church elected the church's first openly gay bishop, garnering praise and protests from church members.
Rev. Karen Oliveto was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Arizona on July 15, according to a United Methodist Church (UMC) news release. Oliveto, who is married to another female pastor, is the first openly homosexual bishop of the UMC.
“I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God. ...,” Oliveto said after the election. “Today we took a step closer to embody beloved community and while we may be moving there, we are not there yet. We are moving on to perfection.”
The appointment of openly gay church leaders is against written UMC policy. “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” says the UMC “Book of Discipline” that outlines the group’s beliefs and policies. “Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
While this rule remains a part of UMC law, a number of conferences passed resolutions earlier in 2016 that disavow guidelines seen as discriminating against LGBTQ members.
The church is divided on issues related to homosexuality, says NPR. In May, the UMC initiated a full review of church laws on sexuality, which is expected to take several years.
In a statement following the election, president of the UMC council of Bishops, Bruce Ough, noted that the election could raise questions from church members and move the church towards a possible split.
“There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law… while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church,” Ough wrote in a press release. “Though conflicted and fragile, the United Methodist Church remains a strong witness to the transforming love of God and the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of conservative Methodist magazine Good News, called the election “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,” he told Good News.