Deep divisions over homosexuality as UMC elects first openly gay bishop

The first openly lesbian bishop has been consecrated in the United Methodist Church (UMC), despite the denomination technically forbidding the ordination of "self-avowed practising gay people".

Bishop Karen Oliveto is married to a deaconess in the UMC.Twitter

Rev Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, was elected to the position of bishop on July 15 by delegates at the Western Jurisdictional Conference and was consecrated a day later.

The 55-year-old, who is married to a deaconess in the Church, said of her 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 UMC does not permit same-sex marriages, but activists have long sought to promote the advancement of LGBTQ rights in the Church.

They have argued for "discriminatory language" in the Book of Discipline – the law and doctrine of the UMC – to be removed, for gay and lesbian ministers to be ordained, and for same-sex weddings to be performed in UMC churches.

A day before the UMC's General Conference in May, 111 clergy came out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and inter-sex in an attempt to force the issue into the light.

No doctrinal decisions have been made as yet. The Church has created a commission to discuss its stance on homosexuality, and has said it may hold a special session on the subject in 2018 or 2019.

In the meantime, some churches are actively disobeying UMC law. Bishops are elected by jurisdictional conferences, rather than a central body, and some of these are openly ordaining gay ministers and passing resolutions that affirm transgender people.

Following Oliveto's election, the president of the UMC Council of Bishops, Bruce Ough, said the move "raises significant concerns and questions of church policy and unity".

He said that the council does not have authority to intervene in the election, but that it is "monitoring this situation very closely".

"Our differences are real and cannot be glossed over, but they are also reconcilable," he said of the growing fracture in the Church over homosexuality. "We are confident God is with us, especially in uncharted times and places."

Some church leaders immediately condemned Oliveto's consecration. President of evangelical UMC organisation Good News, Rev Rob Renfroe, accused the Western Jurisdiction of pushing the Church "to the brink of schism".

Vice president of Good News, Rev Thomas Lambrecht, said it was a "grave breach of unity".

Others, however, welcomed Oliveto's election.

Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), which advocates for LGBTQ people in the UMC, said it was a "historic moment".

"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," a statement from RMN read.

"Today is cause for great celebration and joy in the lives of LGBTQ people and United Methodists everywhere. Not only has God seen fit to raise excellence in leadership to the level of a bishop in Rev. Dr. Oliveto, but we are all privileged to be living witnesses to the work of the Spirit who is animating resurrection in the body of Christ – a sign of great joy and great hope."