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Lesbian Minister's Credentials Revoked

Methodists Enforce Ban on Practicing Homosexual Clergy

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A03

A jury of Methodist ministers yesterday expelled a Pennsylvania woman from the Methodist clergy after convicting her of breaking church law by living openly as a lesbian.

Following a two-day ecclesiastical trial, the jury voted 12 to 1 to find the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, 34, guilty of violating the United Methodist Church's ban on "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals in the clergy.

Irene Elizabeth Stroud, left, hugs her partner, Chris Paige, center, and Carolyn Paige, mother of Chris, right, following the announcement that Stroud had been defrocked at her trial in Pughtown, Pa. (Bradley C. Bower -- AP)

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By a 7 to 6 vote, the jury then revoked Stroud's credentials as a minister. The liberal congregation in Philadelphia, where she has served as an associate pastor since 1999, has offered to employ her as a lay associate. But she will no longer be able to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.

Stroud, who had urged supporters not to regard the church as an enemy, hugged each member of the jury after the penalty was announced.

"I did not go into this trial expecting to win," she told reporters as she held back tears. "I went into it knowing that it would be a painful moment in the life of the United Methodist Church. . . . I am hopeful that in time, and that through God's spirit, the United Methodist Church will change its Discipline."

The verdict was a victory for traditionalists in a long-running battle over homosexuality within the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.

Over the last three decades, gay rights supporters have gradually won changes in Methodist law declaring that homosexuals are "persons of sacred worth" and welcoming them as members of the church. But delegates to the church's legislative conferences have repeatedly voted to retain the ban on openly gay ministers.

In March, the church's ability to enforce the ban was placed in doubt when a Seattle-area jury acquitted the Rev. Karen Dammann of "practices incompatible with Christian teaching."

Dammann had informed her bishop in writing that she was living in a "committed" relationship with another woman. But the jury in her case found that the church's position on homosexuality was riddled with inconsistencies, prompting the church's governing General Conference and its highest court to reinforce the ban in May.

Conservative Methodist leaders hailed the verdict against Stroud as a symbolic repudiation of the decision in the Dammann case.

"It's a very positive declaration that church law will be upheld," said Patricia L. Miller of Indianapolis, executive director of the Confessing Movement, an evangelical renewal movement within the 8.3 million-member denomination.

On the other side of the political and ecclesiastical battle lines, the Rev. Troy Plummer said Stroud's ouster was cause for "great sadness."

"Nobody won today," said Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an alliance of about 200 congregations and campus ministries working for full acceptance of homosexuals in the Methodist Church. "Beth lost her credentials but kept her integrity. The church kept its rules but lost its integrity."

Among the character witnesses for Stroud was the new Methodist bishop of Washington, D.C., John Schol. He said she was one of the best preachers he had ever heard and had always been honest with him about her sexual identity.

Stroud set the legal charges in motion last year when she announced in a sermon to her congregation, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, that she was living in a "covenant relationship" with a female partner, Chris Paige. Stroud said she had come to a point in "my walk with Christ" where she needed to tell the whole truth and pay "whatever price truthfulness requires."

She now has 30 days to appeal the verdict to a regional committee. The retired bishop who presided over the trial did not allow her lawyers to present arguments that the ban on homosexual clergy violates a nondiscrimination clause in the church's constitution. But experts on church law said she could pursue that argument on appeal.

"That's a decision I won't make tonight and I won't make tomorrow," Stroud said in an interview, explaining that she felt emotionally drained after the two-day trial.

She acknowledged that she felt "a little anger" at the outcome. But she also said she was grateful to the jurors for "listening deeply" and had hugged them to show respect for their deliberations.

"I felt compassion for what they were going through," she said.

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