Panel hears defrocking appeal

Methodist lesbian fights to restore her credentials

April 29, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud isn't sorry she did what she did that Sunday morning two years ago this week. She also isn't sorry she stood in front of the congregation of the Philadelphia church where she was associate pastor and told them the secret she had been keeping from them for years.

"I know that, by telling the truth about myself, I risk losing my credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister," she told them. "And that would be a huge loss for me. But I have realized that not telling the whole truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith."

The truth was that she is gay and had been in a serious committed relationship with another woman for more than two years. Her fears of punishment would soon come true. Stroud was defrocked after a church trial in December, and yesterday, in a hotel meeting room turned courtroom in Linthicum, her defenders appealed to nine ministers and lay people from the northeastern region of the church to restore her credentials.

A divided Methodist General Conference has discussed the issue of homosexuals in the ministry every four years since 1984 and even some who side with the church say it may only be a matter of time before the church alters its views. The eyes of the church are on the Stroud case, just the third of its kind in the nation.

"Ultimately we think that the outcome of this process will say something about the integrity, the relevancy of the United Methodist Church," said the Rev. Jim Hallam, a minister who argued on behalf of Stroud.

Church rules state that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church." But Stroud's counsel argued yesterday that there are other parts of church law that discuss inclusiveness and tolerance - and those should preclude tossing someone out because of the person's sexual orientation.

"She's a person of integrity, a person who was led by the spirit to be open about who she was," Hallam told the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals yesterday. "It seems that the church would have preferred her to be deceptive: Don't ask. Don't tell. ... She had to express who she was."

The Rev. Tom Hall, who represented the church, told the committee that the language is unambiguous, that the church does not condone homosexuality.

"This trial was not, nor is about how good and wonderful we are as ministers," Hall said. "It is not about the boundaries, about the lines. It is about a good person who has stepped over the line.

The committee, led by the Rev. William "Scott" Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., has four options.

It can let stand the judgment of the 13-minister jury that decided against her in December. It can reverse their decision entirely or partially. It can remand the case back for a new trial or penalty phase. It can determine and impose a new penalty. A written ruling is expected sometime today. Either side can appeal to the Judicial Council, which is the Methodist Church's highest judicial body.

Stroud, 35, was raised in the United Methodist Church. She doesn't see herself anywhere else. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia and Union Theological Seminary in New York, she joined First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia as an associate pastor in 1999. When she was ordained, she wasn't in violation of church law, she said. She wasn't in a relationship. "I fell in love," she said.

After Stroud was defrocked, her congregation immediately hired her as a lay minister, so she continues to work in the church. She has also given speeches at divinity schools and elsewhere. But she doesn't don her robes and colorful stole on Sunday mornings anymore. She can only watch as other ministers perform baptisms. She had to return the ordination certificates that hung on her wall.

Many members of her church have stood by her. A group of them traveled to Maryland yesterday to offer support, wearing rainbow-colored stoles in support of Stroud and proclaiming to be part of her flock. They held a prayer service on her behalf after the hearing. They gave hugs and warm wishes.

Even though she can no longer wear her robes, Stroud said, she has found the last four months since being stripped of her duties to be "a time of a lot of healing."

She said she has been able to be fully honest with her colleagues, with her parishioners. She has seen people inquire about her church simply because there is a gay minister there.

"The church is harmed when it loses the gifts of gay and lesbian people who could serve very faithfully," she said.

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