Methodists are at an impasse over Montana's new gay bishop 

The rocking chair tilts back and forth as Todd Scranton, pastor at Missoula's Grace United Methodist Church, tries to parse a recent ruling by the church's high court that threatens the unity of the country's third-largest Christian denomination. Scranton closes his eyes as he chooses his words, keeping one hand on his full, white beard while the other makes circles in the air.

"I don't see how this in any way carries on Christ's work in the world," he says.

On April 28, a long-simmering dispute among Methodists over gay marriage and sexuality boiled over when the church's Judicial Council declared that last year's consecration of Karen Oliveto as bishop for several western states, including Montana, violated church law. Oliveto, the church's first openly gay bishop, remains in her post for now, but could face sanctions or removal in the coming months. Regardless, Scranton and church officials around the world believe the ruling will force Methodist factions to either reconcile or split.

"We have to fix this now. We have to decide," Scranton says. "I fear we won't do that. We've been at this political game for so long that I fear we don't know any other way to be together."

Scranton, like many Methodist clergy in the American West, holds the progressive view. He met Oliveto and her wife, Robin Ridenour, last fall when the newly minted bishop embarked on a "windshield tour" of the congregations she oversees. Oliveto made a point of personally greeting members of the neighborhood church near Franklin School, he says, and impressed them with her grace.

"But it feels like we're going to reject those gifts because we can't see past who she chooses to marry," Scranton says.

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Many Methodist churches that embrace LGBT people, including First United Methodist Church in downtown Missoula, have applied for designation as "reconciling ministries." Grace has not, and Scranton acknowledges that within his own church, not all members share his view—though none have left since Oliveto's consecration. Oliveto recognized the schism on her Facebook page after the Judicial Council's ruling, writing last Saturday night that "the breadth of emotions present in our congregations tomorrow will be as wide as the Big Sky of Montana."

Members of the Methodists' evangelical wing saw Oliveto's election as a shot across the bow, or, as a representative of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy told the New York Times last week, "giving the middle finger to the rest of the church."

Scranton says he's disturbed by the way that gay marriage has bedeviled the church's democratically inspired structure, mirroring the "legislative nastiness that we see in the culture around us."

Scranton knew he was entering a divided church when he became a minister in 2007. The clergy is his second career, and it's pastoral work that drew him in. Donation bins line Grace's foyer, and Scranton says the congregation is currently hosting three homeless families in the church basement.

"This is why I'm in ministry," he says. "The other stuff up there, I can't even defend it sometimes."

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