Associated Press, 18 Dec 04

A church divided

AP Religion Writer

PUGHTOWN, Pa. -- Last week's defrocking of a United Methodist Church pastor who broke church law by living openly with her lesbian partner was a victory for the denomination's conservative wing. But more broadly, did it signify a decisive turn for the denomination?

Conservatives hope so. The church-trial verdict shows "we will not surrender to the popular culture on matters of sexual ethics." That's the contention of Mark Tooley, the Methodist specialist at the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Liberals, however, saw the result against the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud of Philadelphia as a case of the UMC "shamefully" caving in to "cultural prejudice" against gays and lesbians.

Those are the words of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an alliance of 192 congregations and other Methodist groups that favors "full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities." The network branded Stroud's ouster as sin and blasphemy.

American society's ongoing cultural war over gay relationships undoubtedly affects churches, but the Stroud case was shaped more by internal Methodist dynamics.

With 8.3 million members, 35,000 congregations and $5 billion in annual proceeds, the UMC is the monolith of mainline Protestantism. On most matters, both theological and temporal, it follows mainliners' left-of-center views -- but on the gay clergy issue, forces that back traditional Christian teaching against gay sex have been winning.

Among other mainline groups, the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church are more welcoming of openly gay, partnered clergy, though a minority of Episcopalians fiercely disagree with that stance, with backing from fellow Anglicans overseas. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is sharply divided over its gay ban, which covers both clergy and lay officeholders, and awaits a crucial report late next year and a 2006 showdown.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America could also erupt, depending on recommendations that a panel is polishing this weekend for release Jan. 13 and action at a convention next August.

The UMC's struggle originated at the 1972 legislative General Conference, where an official committee to re-examine overall social policy proposed language of acceptance toward gays and lesbians. But delegates inserted a phrase specifying that same-sex practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching."

The 1984 Methodist conference followed up with the law Stroud violated, forbidding "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" in the ministry.

National UMC rules are applied by regional clergy juries. The one in eastern Pennsylvania readily agreed that Stroud broke the law, but the vote of 7-6 on the penalty of defrocking was the minimum necessary. It's anguishing for clerics to oust fellow ministers, and with Stroud -- who will retain many of her duties with her supportive congregation -- even the prosecution praised her pastoral devotion.

Though narrow, the verdict was significant because only last March a Methodist court in Washington state acquitted another minister living with a lesbian partner, finding a loophole that was closed at last May's General Conference.

Stroud could offer little more than a character defense and plead for mercy, because the bishop who presided -- and who personally opposes the Methodist policy -- disallowed the plan of Stroud's side to challenge denominational law as discriminatory. Those preparing to testify were theologians from Emory and Southern Methodist Universities; New England's retired bishop; the pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.; a psychiatrist and a Pennsylvania lay leader.

However, their arguments were entered into the trial record and will re-emerge if Stroud appeals to the Northeastern Jurisdiction and, beyond that, the national Judicial Council.

Stroud is undecided on that and will announce her plans after Christmas. An appeal might seem automatic but she wonders, "If I were to win on an appeal, is it healthy for the church for a decision to be made judicially that as many as two-thirds of Methodists may disagree with?"

Whatever Stroud does, the Rev. Troy Plummer of Reconciling Ministries is calling on jurors in future cases "to keep their conscience," practice "jury nullification" and acquit openly gay clergy -- no matter what church law says.

And there surely will be other cases if Reconciling Ministries is correct that Methodism has "hundreds, if not thousands" of other homosexual pastors, seminarians, district superintendents and bishops.

Liberals face an uphill battle in seeking repeal of the clergy ban at the next General Conference in 2008.

But Plummer thinks they have a good shot at softening the policy through language that was narrowly defeated last May, and basically sets up an agreement to disagree: "We recognize that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching." Another necessity is electing a liberal majority to the influential Judicial Council.

Tooley, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, predicts that 2008 is the liberals' last chance because conservative congregations are growing while liberal ones decline. Also, unlike other mainline denominations, the UMC has sizable delegations from conservative overseas churches and after 2008 there will be a big influx of Ivory Coast Methodists joining the UMC.

The Stroud case "was symbolically very important," and "we're probably stronger than we have been for 30 years," Tooley summarizes. "But we are vulnerable, so it's not over."