Nineteen months ago, the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud gave a sermon that began and ended with Jesus saying, "Peace be with you." In the middle, she told her congregants that she was living in a "covenant relationship" with another woman.
"I have come to a place where my discipleship, my walk with Christ, requires telling the whole truth, and paying whatever price truthfulness requires," she announced from the pulpit on the Sunday after Easter 2003.
Stroud's disclosure was no surprise to her flock at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, a 210-year-old Philadelphia parish that welcomes gay men and lesbians. Many of its 800 members had known for years about her relationship with Chris Paige, a small-business consultant.
But Stroud's sermon was a challenge to the national church's rule against self-avowed gay men and women in the ministry, and it set in motion an investigation and charges that will culminate Wednesday in a church trial before a jury of fellow ministers. If Stroud, 34, is found guilty of "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings," she may lose her credentials as a minister.
Like many other mainline Protestant denominations, the Methodist Church has been deeply divided for three decades over homosexuality, particularly in the clergy. Stroud is the third minister to face trial for violating its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
In 1987, the church convicted and removed the Rev. Rose Mary Denman, a lesbian minister in New Hampshire who later wrote a book about her struggle.
In March, a panel of 13 ministers acquitted the Rev. Karen Dammann of Ellensburg, Wash., after a three-day trial that gained national attention. That verdict infuriated conservative Methodists, who accused the panel of "jury nullification," or simply disregarding a church law they did not agree with.
Because the jury in the Dammann case said it had found contradictory passages about homosexuality in the church's Book of Discipline, Methodist leaders quickly reinforced the rules.
In May, delegates to the church's general conference in Pittsburgh voted 579 to 376 to declare that, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." At the same time, the church's highest court ruled 6 to 3 that a public declaration of active homosexuality is a "chargeable offense" for Methodist ministers.
The new rules are so tight, in fact, that it is uncertain what defense Stroud will be able to present, a matter that her lawyers have been discussing in private with retired Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel of Smithsburg, Md., who will preside over the trial.
"We're really not clear at this juncture what the defense will be, and I'm not at liberty to discuss it," Stroud said in an interview. "But it's not just about winning or losing for me. It's about being faithful to what I believe."
Some experts on church law said Stroud's counsel could argue that the rule against gay clergy contradicts the church's constitution, which says "the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called" and does not bar any group of people from ministry.
Alan Symonette, a lawyer in Stroud's congregation who is serving as her co-counsel, said he intends mainly "to introduce the jury to Beth [Stroud], who she is and how faithful she is to her calling."
Symonette said a parade of parishioners is ready to testify that she "has been universally and enthusiastically accepted" by the congregation, which has promised to continue to employ her, even if she is removed from the ordained clergy and can no longer perform baptisms or administer the sacrament of Holy Communion.
To try to prevent the jury from acting solely on personal sympathy, Yeakel asked all 66 clergy members in the potential jury pool whether they could enforce the church's rules in good conscience. Fourteen were dismissed when they said they could not, according to the bishop's assistant, David Fife.
The Rev. Fred Day, who has been Stroud's senior pastor since she entered the ministry five years ago, said that if she is removed, it will send "a message of discrimination, and one of real incongruity" with the United Methodist Church's logo: "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."
In her April 2003 sermon, however, Stroud urged her congregation not to view the larger church or its bishops as the enemy. Instead, she asked parishioners to concentrate on providing emotional support to her and to one another.
"You're a great church for protest marches. You're not always so great at casseroles," she said. "But this situation may call for casserole."