The highest court in the United Methodist Church yesterday defrocked a lesbian minister in Philadelphia and reinstated a Virginia pastor who had been suspended for denying a gay man membership in his congregation.
The nine-member Judicial Council also rejected a declaration by Methodists in the Pacific Northwest that there is 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 who believe gay sex is a sin and want to strictly enforce a Methodist rule against "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" in ordained ministry. They were the latest in a series of defeats for liberals in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination who have sought to be more welcoming toward gay men 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 yesterday. "It's been tears off and on all morning," she said.
Stroud said she will continue working at Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown as a lay minister, which means she cannot administer Communion and baptisms.
Her case began when she told her congregation in 2003 that she was living in a "covenanted relationship" with another woman. Her message from the pulpit violated the church's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the clergy and resulted in a formal charge by her bishop.
In December 2004, a jury of 13 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 an ambiguous 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 by a 6 to 2 vote, with one judge absent. Wary of such a decision, Stroud had not resumed ordained ministry since the original trial.
"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.
The Judicial Council's rulings also represented a significant change in fortune for the Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in South Hill, Va.
Johnson, 58, had been on an involuntary, unpaid leave since June, when Methodist ministers in Virginia voted 448 to 114 to discipline him for refusing to allow a gay man to become a member of his congregation. His district superintendent and his bishop had urged Johnson to admit the man.
Yesterday, the Judicial Council reinstated Johnson, with back pay, with a 5 to 3 vote. It said local pastors have the discretion to decide on members.
Johnson was traveling yesterday and did not return messages. The Rev. Tom Thomas, who served as Johnson's legal counsel, said the decision "salvaged" the career of a good pastor and "preserves the way pastoral ministry has been done in our church for 200 years."
The Judicial Counsel viewed the case as a question about a pastor's authority, rather than a question about whether people in same-sex relationships are eligible to join the church. 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."
Like many other Protestant denominations, the Methodist Church has been struggling with sexual issues for 30 years. Its legislative body, the General Conference, meets every four years and has, in recent sessions, reaffirmed the prohibition on "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" in the clergy by increasing margins.
Because of a changing geographic formula, conservative Methodists from the South have been gaining influence in the General Conference and have helped elect more conservatives to the Judicial Council. In May 2004, delegates also voted to tighten church laws, making it easier to charge, try and convict gay ministers.
"A lot of loopholes have been closed, but I believe in risky ways," said the Rev. Thomas E. Frank, director of Methodist Studies at Emory University and a proponent of welcoming gays into the church. "There's a lot of ambiguities in the judicial procedures because the church has never tried that hard to get people out; instead, it's emphasized being a big tent and getting everybody in. It's a sharp reversal when we start heading in the other direction."
Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, said the rulings show that Methodism "is not moving in the direction of the Episcopal Church and declining liberal Protestantism in the West." Rather, he said, it "is moving in the direction of global Christianity, which is robustly orthodox."