Lesbian minister challenges church conviction

BY admin

April 29 2005 12:00 AM ET

The Reverend Irene Elizabeth Stroud predicted the firestorm that has become her life. She just failed to predict the intensity of that storm. When Stroud told her Philadelphia congregation two years ago that she was living in a committed relationship with another woman, she correctly foretold that she would be defrocked as an ordained Methodist minister.

Now, as she prepares to appeal the December ruling that she violated the United Methodist Church's law against "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" in the clergy, she says that what she didn't predict, or fully understand, was the hate mail her story would generate, often from fellow Christians who called her relationship with her partner "an abomination against God." "They say it's sick...that a person like me has no right to serve in any way in a church," Stroud, 35, said on the eve of her appeal Thursday. "I lose sleep over it. They're talking about my life with my partner, which is one of
the most sacred things that I know. It hurts and it feels very personal."

Stroud says she's tried to balance the negative with what she believes to be true: that God made her a lesbian; that God called her to the ministry; and that to deny either fact would be to betray God. Stroud explains her decision to come out, even though she knew she'd be defrocked, like this: "If I believe that God created me this way and God called me into the ministry knowing I was a lesbian, then I had no choice but to publicly embrace myself the way I am."

The United Methodist Church accepts gay and lesbian ministers as long as they are celibate. But when Stroud publicly announced her sexuality, her bishop was forced to start the defrocking process, according to the Reverend Thomas Hall, a church attorney. Methodist law is "very, very clear on homosexuality being incompatible with Christianity," Hall said. "The point here is, Did a person violate the covenant that we currently have?--not if we agree or disagree with it." Stroud's appeal will be heard at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The panel hopes to have a decision by Friday.

Stroud's case hinges on several legal points, including her allegation that her trial judge inappropriately prevented experts from arguing that the section of church policy barring noncelibate gay people from being clergy is inconsistent with the overall Methodist message, which is one of inclusiveness for all people, regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation, said her attorney, Alan Symonette. The Reverend William "Scott" Campbell, chairman of the appeals panel of the church's northeastern jurisdiction, which covers 12 states and the District of Columbia, said one of several things could happen once his panel makes a decision: Either side could appeal to the UMC supreme court; the case could be remanded for a second trial; the panel could also reverse the earlier verdict or change the penalty.

Whatever is decided, the ruling will directly affect the 1.5 million United Methodists in the northeastern jurisdiction. There are 8.3 million United Methodists nationwide, making it the second largest Protestant denomination. Hall says "the implications will reverberate throughout the church."

Stroud is still an associate lay minister at the Germantown, Pa., church, but she's no longer ordained, meaning she can't celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism--something that "just has to eat at the core of her soul," said Fred Day, head minister at Stroud's church. "This is what God has called her to do, and the church has said, 'Oh, no, you can't, because you're a lesbian living in a committed relationship."' Stroud understands why both supporters and detractors are drawn to her. "My story puts a human face on something that might otherwise be abstract," she said. "But I'm not really interested in being a symbol. What I really would like most is just to be a minister, to preach the gospel, to live my life with my partner, and to at some point have a family." (AP)

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