Third UMC Lesbian Case to Begin Tomorrow

The United Methodist Church (UMC)¡¯s law prohibiting ¡°self-avowed practicing homosexuals¡± from ministering will face its third test tomorrow, as the case of Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud begins. The highly anticipated trial, open to the public and set to last for three days, may act as a precedence for future trials and may determine changes to the current denominational laws on homosexual pastors.

Stroud, 34, of Philadelphia said she realized she was a lesbian while attending Bryn Mawr College. Despite knowing that the UMC prohibits the ordination of homosexuals, Stroud graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and chose to be ordained and assigned as associate pastor of Philadelphia¡¯s First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

In 2001, two years into her service to the Germantown church, Stroud held a ¡°covenant ceremony¡± with her partner Chris Paige, at a United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church (USA)-affiliated church, despite the fact that Methodist law also forbids the celebration of same-sex unions by its clergy.

It was not until April 27, 2003 that she confessed her relationship and ¡°union¡± to her congregation.

"I know that by telling the truth about myself I risk losing my credentials," she said, but decided "my walk with Christ requires telling the whole truth."

"I'm aware that a lot of folks are watching this case," she added. But "for me it really is a very personal faith issue."

Whatever her position, the UMC¡¯s Book of Discipline states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings and thus ¡°self-avowed practicing homosexuals¡± are forbidden from ordination. The UMC¡¯s book also notes, however, that homosexuals are people of sacred worth.

Given the language, conviction seems probable. However, in the last lesbian trial case, the church court acquitted Rev. Karen Dammann of her charges. The controversial trial was questioned through and through by conservatives who were weary of the prosecutor¡¯s own lenient stance on the debate; the prosecutor asked only one question at the stand while the defense asked seven. Dammann, a pastor in Washington state, lived openly and actively with her lesbian partner. The court, however, delved not into the core issue of whether Dammann broke the laws of the church but rather debated the content of the laws themselves.

The controversial and contradictory verdict found that while Dammann was a practicing homosexual, she was not guilty of engaging in ¡°practices incompatible with Christian teaching.¡±

In early May, the denomination¡¯s top court, the Judicial Council, ruled that it did not have the authority to review the findings of the Dammann trial. However, the council did reaffirm that a bishop may not appoint a pastor who has been found by a trial court to be a ¡°self-avowed practicing homosexual.¡±

In the first lesbian trial, held in 1987, Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire was found guilty and was permanently defrocked.

Stroud¡¯s case was brought to light by then-Washington bishop Peter Weaver. Weaver has since been reassigned to head the New England Conference, and is the president of the UMC¡¯s Council of Bishops.

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 closed-door selection of 13 jurors from clergy in the regional Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Approval from nine jurors is necessary to convict Stroud.

The prosecuting attorney assigned by Weaver is the Rev. 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."

Stroud¡¯s case will be presented by the Rev J. Dennis Williams, a retired minister from Cornwall, Pa.

With a guilty verdict, the trial court would have a range of penalties to consider, including the removal of ministerial orders or a lesser penalty. While at least nine votes are needed to convict, seven votes by the trial court are necessary to set the penalty.