By Walter Fenton-
The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council has declined a request to reconsider a portion of its April 2017 decision regarding the consecration of an openly lesbian bishop.
In a brief email to Mr. Richard Marsh, an attorney representing the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops in its bid for reconsideration, the Rev. Lui Tran, Council secretary, wrote, “After careful review and prayerful consideration, the Motion to Reconsider [Judicial Council Decision] 1341 of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops has been denied.” Tran also noted the Council’s decision to deny was unanimous.
The Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops took particular issue with the Council’s ruling that “A same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities together with [a] clergy person’s status in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual for purposes of [church law].” It claimed the Council had exceeded its mandate to interpret church law, and instead usurped the General Conference’s sole authority to create and define standards for clergy ordination.
The ruling is a setback for any clergy who have obtained a same-sex marriage license, and it poses a serious risk for Bishop Karen Oliveto, episcopal leader of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area in the Western Jurisdiction. Oliveto’s July 2016 election and consecration as a UM Church bishop engendered JCD 1341. While the Council ruled it did not have the authority to vacate Oliveto’s election and consecration, it did rule bishops could not consecrate as a bishop a clergy person found to be in a same-sex marriage.
“The motion to reconsider was without merit as it raised no new matters for consideration by the Judicial Council,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the attorney who opposed the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops during the Council’s oral hearing on April 25, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. “I am gratified that the Council has denied the motion. Oliveto’s status as a bishop continues under a cloud, so it is in the best interest of the church, the episcopal area where she is assigned, and of Oliveto herself that this matter be resolved as expeditiously as possible and in conformity with the requirements of the Book of Discipline. I urge the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops to fulfill their responsibilities expeditiously and in accordance with church law.”
Although it was widely known at the time of her election and consecration that Oliveto was in a same-sex marriage and had secured a marriage license, none of her supervisory authorities (bishops and district superintendents) or any other party had filed a complaint against her. At least in part, the delegates who elected her and the bishops who consecrated her regarded their actions as a direct challenge to the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and standards on ordination.
In its April decision the Council instructed the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops to review and act on complaints that were filed against Oliveto shortly after her election. Should the complaints result in a church trial, the Judicial Council’s denial to reconsider its ruling forecloses a defense tactic used in the past.
In two previous cases clergy have openly advertised they were in same-sex partnered relationships, but when questioned at trial, they refused to acknowledge whether they were “practicing homosexuality.” Consequently, the complaints were dismissed. But now, according to the Council, “A same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities” is equivalent to a clergy person’s declaration that he or she is “a self-avowed practicing homosexual for purposes of [church law].”
Some United Methodists regarded the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops’ request for reconsideration as an attempt to further delay processing the complaints against Oliveto. The complaints were filed in August 2016, but to date nothing has been publicly reported regarding their disposition. If the complainants and Oliveto cannot reach a “just resolution” of the matter, a church counsel will be appointed to investigate their validity and bring the case to trial if necessary.
“The Council’s refusal to reconsider their decision makes perfect sense,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News. “For millennia, people in various cultures have regarded sexual intimacy as integral to marriage. The Council is not making new law; it is simply using common sense when it comes to the church’s understanding of marriage. I am grateful that they saw the WJ Council’s request for what it was – a cynical delaying tactic – and dismissed it promptly and unanimously.”
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.