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Methodist Church court defrocks lesbian minister

It restores pastor who turned away gay man

WASHINGTON -- The highest court in the Methodist Church yesterday defrocked a lesbian minister in Philadelphia, and reinstated a Virginia pastor who had been suspended for denying congregation membership to a gay man.

The nine-member Judicial Council also voided a declaration by Methodists in the Pacific Northwest that there was a ''difference of opinion among faithful Christians regarding sexual orientation and practice." The court said the declaration was a ''historical statement without prescriptive force" and had no bearing on church laws.

The decisions amounted to a clean sweep for conservatives in the church who believe homosexual activity is a sin and want to enforce a Methodist rule against ''self-avowed, practicing" homosexuals in ordained ministry. They were the latest in a series of recent defeats for liberals in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination who have sought to be more welcoming toward gays and lesbians.

The court rulings, which are final, put an end to the Rev. Irene ''Beth" Stroud's hopes of remaining an ordained Methodist minister. Stroud, 35, said she thought she ''was prepared for whatever might happen," but found it impossible to master her emotions today. ''It's been tears off and on all morning," she said.

Stroud said she intends to continue working at Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown as a lay minister, which means she cannot preside at communion and baptisms but still will run the church's youth group.

''If it's a choice between serving in the ordained ministry with my credentials intact, and serving as an 'out' lesbian person acknowledging the most important relationship in my life and not having those credentials, I'll take being out. I think it's better and more honest and more healthy in the long run," she said.

Stroud told her congregation in 2003 that she did not want to hide the fact that she was living in a ''covenanted relationship" with Chris Paige, 33, a website designer. Her message from the pulpit violated the ''don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays and lesbians in the clergy, and resulted in a charge by her bishop.

In December, a jury of 13 fellow ministers convicted Stroud of ''practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching" and removed her ministerial credentials. But a regional appeals panel overturned the verdict, citing legal errors and the ambiguity of a clause in the church's constitution that pledges no discrimination on the basis of ''status."

Yesterday, the Judicial Council reaffirmed the original jury's verdict and penalty by a 6-2 vote, with one judge absent. Wary of such a decision, Stroud had not resumed ordained ministry since the original trial. ''I did not want to pick up my stole only to have to put it down again," she said, referring to the shawl that signifies pastoral ministry.

''It's going to take me some time to recover that sense of spiritual groundedness that I value in my life," Stroud added. ''But I don't feel misled. I think that God calls us to various ministries and gives us the gifts to carry them out."

The Judicial Council's rulings also represented a sharp reversal in fortune for the Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in South Hill, Va.

Johnson had been on involuntary, unpaid leave since June, when his fellow ministers in the church's Virginia conference voted 581-20 to punish him for refusing to allow a gay man to become a member of his congregation. His district superintendent and Virginia's Methodist bishop, Charlene P. Kammerer, had counseled him to admit the man, who had been attending the church and singing in the choir for months.

The Judicial Council reinstated Johnson by a 5-3 vote with one member absent. It said the church's laws give local pastors the discretion ''to make the determination of a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership."

Johnson was traveling and could not be reached for comment. The Rev. Tom Thomas, a Methodist minister in Mecklenburg County who served as Johnson's legal counsel, said the decision ''salvaged" the career of a good pastor.

According to Thomas, Johnson turned away the gay man for membership because the man was in a same-sex relationship and refused to see that as a sin. As a result, Thomas said, the pastor did not believe he could honestly administer the first vow of membership in the church, which is, ''Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?"

The Judicial Counsel viewed the Johnson case as a question of a pastor's authority, rather than a question of whether gays and lesbians are eligible to join the church. The Methodist Church's Book of Discipline said they are ''persons of sacred worth," and the church has claimed repeatedly that it is open to them.

In a dissenting opinion, Judicial Council member Susan T. Henry-Crowe said the decision ''compromises the historical understanding that the Church is open to all."

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