Bishops Karen Oliveto and Elaine Stanovsky speaking at a news conference responding to oral hearings of The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council in Newark, NJ on April 25, 2017.

NEWARK, N.J. – April 25, 2017

In a much-awaited moment, the Western Jurisdiction today told The United Methodist Judicial Council that last July’s election of Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto complied with church law.

Denver attorney Richard Marsh, serving as counsel for the Jurisdiction, asked the denomination’s top court to reject arguments by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference that Bishop Oliveto’s election was in violation of church law because she is an open, married lesbian.

“We don’t think the Judicial Council has the authority to step in and interfere with Jurisdictional Conference elections,” Marsh told the Council.

Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) meets Dixie Brewster (right) for the first time prior to the opening of oral arguments before the United Methodist Judicial Council meeting in Newark, N.J. Brewster is petitioner questioning whether a gay pastor can serve as a bishop in The United Methodist Church. At rear is the Rev. Keith Boyette, representing Brewster before the council. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

If successful, the South Central Jurisdiction’s challenge of the Western Jurisdiction’s election of Bishop Oliveto would “lead the way to break the structure, order, and polity of this church,” Marsh said.

Bishop Oliveto, flanked by her wife, Robin Ridenour, her mother, Nellie Oliveto, and escorted by bishops Elaine Stanovsky, Robert Hoshibata, and Minerva Carcano and the Mountain Sky cabinet, walked into the hotel banquet room turned courtroom just before the meeting began. She sat with Marsh and co-counsel, Llewelyn Pritchard of Seattle.

Although she was not named in the motion for a declaratory decision submitted to Judicial Council, the focus was squarely on Bishop Oliveto, the denomination’s first openly gay bishop.

The 9 a.m. hearing — which lasted nearly three hours, including a break — drew about 200 people to the Hilton at Newark Penn Station, some of whom sang, worshipped or held communion before or after the hearing.

Those seated in both the main hearing room and an overflow room equipped with a closed-circuit broadcast listened quietly and attentively. It was the only portion of the council’s April 25-28 meeting open to the public, but N. Oswald Tweh Sr., president of the Judicial Council, thanked the church for its “prayerful support” during his opening remarks.

The Rev. Keith Boyette represented the South Central Jurisdiction before the Judicial Council. Dixie Brewster, the lay representative to the 2016 South Central Jurisdictional Conference, who offered the motion that initiated the Judicial Council proceeding, sat to his left.

Boyette asked the council to rule that the Western Jurisdiction’s actions in electing, consecrating and assigning Oliveto “negate, ignore and violate” provisions of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.

Marsh, in his arguments, cited the 1939 Plan of Union between the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South as the genesis of the church’s constitutional protection for regional bodies known as jurisdictions.

Bishop Karen Oliveto (center) visits with her mother, Nelle Oliveto (left) and her wife, Robin Ridenour outside the meeting of the United Methodist Judicial Council meeting in Newark, N.J. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The constitution provides that elections in jurisdictions be “free from interference or oversight” from other jurisdictions, he said. On that basis alone, Marsh continued, the Judicial Council should decline the request for a declaratory decision on the matter.

Boyette rejected that position. “A person elected to the office of bishop is a bishop of the entire church,” he said. Any bishop can go to another jurisdiction, preside at General Conference, nominate church members to the general boards and agencies or serve in a leadership position for those boards and agencies, he added.

Marsh also argued that Oliveto was an elder in good standing and “as such, met all requirements” to be bishop.

Noting the public record of Oliveto’s 2014 same-sex marriage to Robin Ridenour, a United Methodist deaconess, Boyette disputed that she was a qualified candidate for the episcopacy. He argued that a public record of such a marriage is the same as someone being “self-avowed” as a practicing homosexual. The Discipline, he said, “makes clear” that an ordained person must be celibate in singleness or faithful in heterosexual marriage.

But the Discipline does not specifically prohibit a clergy person from being in a same-sex marriage, Marsh said. Nor, he told the council, does such a marriage equal a public statement of being self-avowed or create a legal definition of “practicing” for the church.

The decades-long position of The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, is that all people are of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Since 2004, chargeable offenses under church law have included “not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” and “being a self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member.

Earlier in the day, the United Methodist Council of Bishops had issued a “call letter” for a special session of General Conference to be held Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis. The purpose is to receive and act on the bishops’ report based on recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward, a body established to help the denomination discuss conflicts over issues of sexuality.

Referring to that body, Marsh said that Judicial Council “should not interfere with or complicate the commission’s work” by making a ruling in this case.

Boyette declared, however, that Judicial Council is the only body within the denomination that could declare the Western Jurisdiction’s action “to be unlawful, null and void and of no effect.”

The petition on the Western Jurisdiction episcopal election is one of seven being considered by Judicial Council this week. No decisions will be released until the meeting has concluded.

This story was compiled from reporting by Western Jurisdiction communications staff and United Methodist News Service writer Linda Bloom.

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