Defrocked gay minister wins appeal

Methodist panel's ruling sharpens debate on role of homosexuals in church

`There's not an easy consensus'

April 30, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

In a move that could reverberate throughout the already divided United Methodist Church, a church committee reinstated yesterday a lesbian pastor who was defrocked in December after she told her Philadelphia congregation of her relationship with another woman.

In an 8-1 vote, the panel set aside the earlier verdict stripping the credentials of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, for violating the United Methodist Church's prohibition on openly gay clergy.

"The ruling today gives me hope that the United Methodist Church does have within itself the resources to do justice," Stroud told a group assembled to hear the decision at a Linthicum hotel.

Lawyers for the church said they would speak with the bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference before deciding whether to appeal to the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court, but "my guess is he'll probably want to appeal," said the Rev. Thomas Hall.

"It does not change church teaching," said a stunned Hall, who represented the church at the committee's hearing. "It does send a message ... that we're going to have to look more seriously at this issue. We do need some clarification."

The ruling returns attention to a growing rift over the role of homosexuals in the 8 million-member United Methodist Church, which resolved last year not to let the issue of gay clergy rip apart the denomination.

The divisions are typically regional - with church members in the South and Southwest often objecting to change and those in the Northeast embracing it.

"There's not an easy consensus," said Heather A. Warren, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and a United Methodist clergywoman.

"The church is maybe now really going to have to face this. ... But it will give hope to those who are pro-gay, and it will make the end of the world seem like it has come for those on the other end of the spectrum."

Thomas W. Ogletree, professor of theological ethics and a former dean of Yale University's Divinity School, said the disagreement could be compared to the mid-20th century debate over whether the Methodist church should be segregated or integrated.

"People sense that there's a change in mood, but it does not mean it is without conflict," he said. "It's not going to be easy to predict just how this will work [itself out]. There are people who feel they can quote Scripture and say this is wrong."

Others say they are being inclusive to gay and lesbians to try to capture the spirit of Jesus Christ who constantly reached out. "We look at Scripture in different ways," Ogletree said.

Church rules outlining who can serve as its clergy 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 argument - that other parts of church law about inclusiveness and tolerance should preclude tossing someone out because of the person's sexual orientation - appeared to have struck a chord with the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals.

The 14-page ruling, completed after a day of deliberations, said the committee overturned a previous panel of 13 ministers because several important terms used in church law need to be better defined before someone like Stroud loses her credentials. It also said her first trial was not fair.

This case is not a first for the United Methodist Church. The Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire was defrocked in 1987.

The Rev. Karen Dammann faced a similar trial in Washington state last year, but a church jury of 13 pastors acquitted her.

Mark Tooley, a United Methodist spokesman for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Christian think tank based in Washington, D.C., said he doesn't believe the ruling will have long-term consequences. He thinks it will be overturned as early as October when the Judicial Council next meets. "I think this ruling is an aberration," he said.

Since Stroud was defrocked, the 35-year-old has continued to work at her Philadelphia church as a lay minister. She said she would not don her robes, perform baptisms or offer Communion soon. She wants to wait until the entire process is over.

"Ordination is a scared trust," she said. "It's not something that I can take off and put on again like a suit of clothes."

Sitting in a chair with her hands folded in her lap, Stroud looked surprised, relieved and tired as she heard her fate. "This has been a hard, long, grueling process for everyone involved," she said later.

In April 2003, two and a half years after she met her partner, Chris Paige, Stroud stood before her congregation and told them she could no longer keep the secret of her sexuality, even though she knew revealing it could get her defrocked. It was too important to be honest, she said.

Many in her church have stood by her. Her parents were on hand yesterday with hugs and prayers.

The motto of the United Methodist church is "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors." There are parts of church law that prohibit many kinds of discrimination in its membership.

"What the committee said is, that carries a lot more weight than a short section somewhere else that says, `But in this one case we will be discriminatory,'" said Bill Stroud, the minister's father.

But Hall, the minister representing the church, said the committee "overstepped" its boundaries in its decision.

"We welcome all," he said. "Does that refer to requirements of ministry? No."

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