The latest clash in the struggle among mainline Protestant denominations over gay clergy hits a critical point Wednesday with the church trial of a United Methodist Church minister who declared in a sermon last year that she is a lesbian living with her partner. The Reverend Irene Elizabeth Stroud of Philadelphia could be defrocked if she loses at the trial, expected to run two or three days.
It's the third test of the UMC's 1984 law barring "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the ministry. The policy was reaffirmed by a 72% vote at the Methodists' General Conference in May.
Given that language, conviction might seem automatic. But last March a church court acquitted the Reverend Karen Dammann, a pastor in Washington state who also lives openly with a same-sex partner, and the Methodists' national supreme court decided it had no power to review the verdict. In the other such trial, the Reverend Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire was defrocked in 1987.
Whether the verdict on Stroud dismays Methodist conservatives or liberals, it will likely add heat to the denomination's long-running debate over gay issues.
Stroud, 34, says she realized she was a lesbian while attending Bryn Mawr College. After graduating from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she was ordained and assigned in 1999 as associate pastor of Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown. Two years later, Stroud held a "covenant ceremony" with her partner, business consultant Chris Paige, at Paige's Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church
Stroud notified her Germantown congregation of the relationship in a sermon on April 27, 2003. "I know that by telling the truth about myself, I risk losing my credentials," she said, adding, however, that "my walk with Christ requires telling the whole truth. I'm aware that a lot of folks are watching this case," she said, noting that she and her church have received hundreds of supportive letters, e-mails, and phone calls. But "for me it really is a very personal faith issue."
Then-bishop Peter Weaver started the process that led to Stroud's trial. He's since been reassigned to head the New England Conference of the 8.3 million-member church and is president of its Council of Bishops.
Paige and several Germantown parishioners will be attending the proceedings in a gymnasium at the Methodists' Camp Innabah. Gay activists who have disrupted meetings of the Methodists and other religious groups say they plan no civil disobedience but will stand vigil nearby.
Stroud says that if she is defrocked, the Germantown congregation has already promised that she can continue her current educational, pastoral, and preaching work under lay status, though she would no longer be able to preside at baptisms or communion services.
The presiding judge at the trial is Joseph Yeakel, the retired bishop of Washington, D.C., who in 1996 joined 15 bishops in saying "It is time to break the silence" and protest their church's gay stance. The trial begins with a closed-door selection of 13 jurors from clergy in the regional Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Approval from nine jurors is necessary to convict.
The prosecuting attorney is the Reverend Thomas Hall of the Church at the Crossroads near Exton, Pa., assisted by lay attorney Robert Shoemaker Jr., of Paoli, Pa. Hall says that "at stake is, really, any denomination's authority to hold ministers accountable to the sacred trust that they have agreed upon as ordained ministers."