Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Beginning today, the United Methodist Church will, for the second time this year, try an openly lesbian minister on charges that her sexual practices are incompatible with church teaching.

The Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, 34, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa., will face an ecclesiastical court at Camp Innabah, a church camp and retreat center 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Church law forbids the ordination and appointment of practicing homosexuals.

Her fate will be decided by a panel of 13 jurors, with nine votes necessary to convict. If found guilty, Miss Stroud could lose her ministerial credentials.

The trial, expected to last until Friday, will be open to the public at Miss Stroud’s request. The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Fred Day, said the congregation supports her and has established a legal fund on her behalf.

The trial will be presided over by retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, of Smithsburg, Md. At the 1996 Methodist General Conference in Denver, Bishop Yeakel was one of 15 bishops who urged the church to liberalize its laws against homosexual clergy.

The process leading to the trial began April 27, 2003, when Miss Stroud preached a sermon on how her lesbianism had shaped her Christian faith.

This is the third time a homosexual Methodist pastor has been brought to trial. In 1987, a New Hampshire cleric, the Rev. Rose Mary Denman, was convicted and defrocked.

But a church trial last March in the Seattle suburb of Bothell resulted in acquittal for the Rev. Karen Dammann, also an open lesbian, on the grounds that the denomination’s Book of Discipline had no official policy on homosexual clergy.

During the General Conference in May, Methodists voted to tighten the language in the Book of Discipline to state plainly that bishops cannot appoint homosexuals.

In an open letter to Bishop Yeakel, the pro-homosexual lobby Soulforce called the trial “an act of spiritual violence against all LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] persons.”

The trial, the letter said, “signals to all LGBT persons, their families and friends that the United Methodist Church considers their most intimate family life, their same gender committed relationships (and, yes, their same gender marriages) to be ‘chargeable offenses,’” ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ and … (guilty of) ‘immorality.’”

But Mark Tooley, who directs the United Methodist program for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, called on the jury to fire the minister.

“There should be no doubt that an unrepentant Stroud cannot continue in the ordained ministry,” he said. The rest of Methodism, he added, is veering toward a more evangelical stance, based on growing demographics in the American South and overseas.

“The train has already left the station on the issue of homosexuality,” Mr. Tooley said. “Whatever happens in the Stroud case, the United Methodist Church as a whole will not endorse the sexual revolution.”

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