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A Methodist minister who was defrocked after telling her Pennsylvania congregation she's gay has her credentials back, but her ordination could again be revoked this week after she goes before the church's highest judicial panel. The judicial council of the United Methodist Church will hear Irene "Beth" Stroud's case in Houston on Thursday. Decisions by the council are final.
Stroud, 35, was convicted in December of violating the denomination's ban on "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" clergy. An appeals panel overturned that conviction in April, but the church has appealed that ruling. "Whether I win or lose, I am grateful that at least this phase of my journey will be ending," said Stroud, who says her sexual orientation shouldn't qualify or disqualify her for the ministry she says she was called to do. "If the judicial council understands this is a question of basic fairness, they will rule in my favor."
Nine elected members make up the council, which will consider oral arguments and is expected to rule by next week, said the Reverend Thomas Hall of Pennsylvania. Hall prosecuted the original case on behalf of the Eastern Pennsylvania conference of the United Methodist Church. "It could certainly change our understanding of the boundaries if the judicial council would sustain or if they would uphold the appellate court's ruling," Hall said.
Hall said the council can interpret church law already in place but does not have the authority to decide "what is doctrine and what is not doctrine." There are clear boundaries preventing Methodist ministers from engaging "in a partnered relationship not recognized by law," he said. "I don't think the church is looking through bedroom windows and seeking out people they can prosecute. Gay and lesbian people can serve as ministers of the church. It is just like a heterosexual person.... If you are going to be single, you have to be celibate."
Stroud became an associate pastor at Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown in 1999. She said she never revealed her sexual orientation in documents related to her ordination but didn't keep it a secret either. "Anybody who wanted to know certainly could have," she said. "I was also prepared if anybody asked me directly if I was a lesbian to tell the truth. I think it would have been in some ways very easy to continue as I was until retirement without serious risk of losing my job, but without feeling happy or fulfilled in my ministry."
In 2003, Stroud decided it was time to reveal her sexual orientation to her congregation. She said she was single when she was ordained but that once she entered a relationship it became harder to "not share that with people." "My own faith as a Christian is that God loves us and accepts us as we are and God blesses loving relationships between two people of the same sex, just as any other loving family, and I really wanted to live that out with my life," Stroud said.
After Stroud appealed her conviction, it was overturned on an 8-1 vote after the church appeals panel found the ban was "null and void" because church procedures hadn't been followed. Stroud continues to work at the Philadelphia church but has declined reinstatement of her credentials until the council rules. Stroud says whichever way the council rules, it probably won't address the larger question of whether it's right to exclude gays and lesbians from the ministry. "I do hope that my case can make people more aware of the discrimination that exists and more aware of the hurt that can cause," Stroud said. "I love this church so much. I don't want to see it practicing discrimination. I want to be a part of working toward overcoming that." (AP)