Associated Press, 3 Dec 04

Methodist Church Defrocks Lesbian Minister

By RICHARD N. OSTLING
AP Religion Writer

PUGHTOWN, Pa. (AP) - A lesbian minister who lives with her partner was defrocked for violating the United Methodist Church's ban on actively gay clergy -- the denomination's first such decision in 17 years.

A 13-member jury made up of Methodist clergy convicted the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud on Thursday, the second day of her church trial. Methodist law bars "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from ministry. The panel voted 12-1 to find Stroud guilty; nine votes were needed for a conviction.

Jurors then voted 7-6 to defrock Stroud, the bare majority necessary in the penalty phase of the trial, though her supportive congregation in Philadelphia has said Stroud can continue performing most of her duties.

"I did not go into this trial expecting to win," said Stroud, who has 30 days to appeal the conviction. "I went into it knowing it would be a painful moment in the life of the United Methodist Church."

The last time the 8.3 million-member denomination convicted an openly gay cleric was in 1987, when a New Hampshire church court defrocked the Rev. Rose Mary Denman.

Last March, a Methodist court in Washington state acquitted the Rev. Karen Dammann, who lives with a same-sex partner, citing an ambiguity in church law that the Methodist supreme court has since eliminated.

The Methodists are just one of several mainline Protestant denominations in the United States -- including the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches -- that are struggling with the role of gays and lesbians in the church, particularly gay clergy. The Stroud case will probably make the debate over the issue among Methodists that much more intense.

Stroud said she was saddened by the verdict but also saw it as a teaching moment that showed how divided her denomination is over homosexuality.

Stroud, 34, an associate pastor at Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown, set the case in motion last year when she announced to her bishop and congregation that she was living in a committed relationship with her partner, Chris Paige.

At her trial, Stroud's defense was dealt a blow when presiding judge Joseph Yeakel, the retired bishop of Washington, D.C., excluded expert testimony from six defense witnesses who believe the church's gay clergy ban violates its own legal principles.

The senior pastor of Stroud's church, the Rev. Alfred Day III, attempted to raise a similar issue when he took the stand, saying "I believe that even the testimony of Scripture is far from clear on this subject."

"We have more muddle than clarity," he said. But the Rev. Thomas Hall of Exton, Pa., the prosecutor, asked Yeakel to strike Day's statement and the judge instructed the jury that "constitutional issues are not before this court."

Stroud's defense counsel, the Rev. J. Dennis Williams, said in closing arguments that "the heart of the issue is whether all United Methodists, regardless of status, are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities."

"I only wish you could hear the full testimony we wished to present," Williams said.

But Hall told jurors they had a duty to "hold a good pastor accountable to the standard with which we all live" under the Methodist Book of Discipline.

The basic facts in the case were never in dispute, since Stroud had declared she was gay.

The only two defense witnesses to be called were Day and the senior pastor who supervised her in West Chester, Pa. Both lavishly praised her performance in preaching, teaching and pastoral work. Hall agreed with that assessment.

Stroud's Philadelphia congregation has already agreed that she can continue doing her work as a lay employee without clergy status. However, she will be unable to celebrate baptism or Communion.