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Methodist council
hears arguments over gay minister's credentials

Methodist council
hears arguments over gay minister's credentials

A lesbian minister should retain her ordination because revoking it would amount to discrimination and belie the inclusiveness the church preaches, representatives of a Pennsylvania pastor argued Thursday before the United Methodist Church's judicial council. The nine-member council--seven of whom attended a hearing at First United Methodist Church in Houston--began deliberating the case of Irene "Beth" Stroud with plans to rule on Monday. Alan Symonette, who represented Stroud, said the church is asking gays and lesbians to deny their sexuality in order to serve as ordained ministers. "We contend this is discrimination based on status," he said. "This United Methodist Church is an inclusive church. Beth Stroud has been called into the ministry." The Reverend Thomas Hall, acting as prosecutor, said if the council decides in Stroud's favor, it will cause confusion throughout the denomination. "What is at stake in this appeal is the ability of the church to uphold its own laws," Hall said. "If we lose, everybody loses." Robert Shoemaker, another church representative, said the church doesn't discriminate but must have standards for who is suited to serve as an ordained minister. "This is a very difficult situation to be in because there are important points being made by both sides," said Richard Heitzenrater, who also argued for the church. "It is part of the pains of growing into the 21st century, but what our side has been trying to say is that there are certain processes and procedures and guidelines." Stroud, 35, was convicted by a church panel in December of violating the denomination's ban on "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" clergy. The conviction was later overturned and then appealed to the judicial council, the church's highest judicial body. As Symonette argued Stroud's case before the council, Stroud sat next to her partner in the front row of a congregation hall. Dozens of supporters from a local Methodist church sat behind Stroud. Many wore brightly colored rainbow stoles or collars. Stroud, who became an associate pastor at Pennsylvania's First United Methodist Church of Germantown in 1999, said she never revealed her sexual orientation in documents related to her ordination but also didn't keep it a secret. Stroud said she decided to come out publicly in 2003 because she felt she was being held back in her faith by not sharing the complete truth about her life. A complaint was filed against Stroud in 2004. "No one has ever questioned my effectiveness as a minister, my gifts for service," she said. "So clearly my sexual orientation doesn't affect my effectiveness as a minister. So to me, that makes it clear that the rules about homosexuality in the ordained ministry are not about effectiveness in ministry, they are about something else." Since her ordination was revoked, Stroud said she has experienced profound sadness and loss. "But at the same time, I am so grateful to be out of the closet. I am so grateful to be in a more honest relationship with my colleagues across the board. I am so grateful that people in my congregation now get to know my partner, Chris," she said. "That's something that I wouldn't give up for any price." Hall said the impact "will be phenomenal" if the appellate court's ruling is upheld. "We will have set in motion a very dangerous precedent that anything established by the highest court or the general conference can be undermined and dismantled by the lower courts," he said. Stroud, who has declined reinstatement of her credentials until the council rules, continues working at the church in Germantown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. Any ruling by the council likely won't address the larger question of whether it's proper to exclude gays and lesbians from the ministry, she said. Stroud said she'll remain with the United Methodist Church and continue her work toward "the day when those rules change." "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night kind of internalizing my opponents' perspectives and wondering if I am right," she said. "But I have ultimately come to a place of more confidence in the inclusiveness that I think Jesus calls us to." (AP)

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