BALTIMORE – A United Methodist appeals court has restored Beth Stroud’s ministry credentials, though she isn’t putting her robes back on just yet.
By an 8-1 vote, the appeals panel today overturned the defrocking of Stroud, the Germantown minister punished in a December church trial because she is a “self-avowed, practicing lesbian.”
Although the evidence of her same-sex relationship was “uncontradicted and overwhelming,” the panel ruled, the defrocking must still be nullified because several key terms under which Stroud was disciplined have never been adequately defined by the proper church bodies.
“The verdict and the penalty are reversed and set aside,” declared the Rev. William Campbell, who headed the appellate panel of four Methodist clergy and five lay leaders.
Stroud – whose challenge to church restrictions on non-celibate homosexual clergy has made her a cause celebre among gay-rights activists – expressed quiet relief at the decision, issued at the airport hotel where her appeals hearing was held yesterday.
“This is just one step,” she told reporters as her parents and partner, Chris Paige, stood near. “But the ruling today gives me hope that the United Methodist Church does have within itself the resources to do justice.”
At the same time, Stroud, 35, said she would not resume her clergy functions at First United Methodist Church of Germantown until the legal proceedings have run their course.
“Ordination is a sacred trust,” she said. “It is not something that I can put on and take off again like a suit of clothes.”
Lawyers for the church said they would confer with the Eastern Pennsylvania bishop, Marcus Matthews, about appealing the reversal to the denomination’s highest court, the Judicial Council.
“We are clearly disappointed,” said the church’s chief counsel, the Rev. Thomas Hall. He acknowledged that the ruling “does send a message that we are going to have to look more seriously at this issue and we do need some clarification on certain words.” The appeals panel did not send the case back to the church’s Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference for a retrial, as it could have done. Instead, it challenged that conference and the denomination’s principal legislative body, the General Conference, to clarify the meaning of two phrases central to the case: “practicing homosexual” and “status.”
The church constitution calls on Methodists “to be inclusive of all people regardless of race, gender and status.” Stroud’s defense team argued that status, meaning a person’s innate condition, should encompass homosexuality, and the appeals panel called on the church conferences to clarify the term and consider whether it would supersede other parts of the church discipline affecting gays.
It also ruled that the Judicial Council’s instituting of the term ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual’ has never been properly vetted by the General Conference.
“Since neither phrase has been defined by either of the requisite bodies in this case,” the panel ruled, “the verdict and penalty must be set aside.”
Until the conferences take action, the panel said, sanctioning Stroud would violate her due-process rights.
It is not clear how quickly that action might occur. The General Conference is not slated to convene again until 2008. The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference is set to meet here in mid-June, and is currently setting its agenda, a spokeswoman said today.
With conflicts over gay rights roiling in the 8.5 million-member denomination, and much of American religion, the Stroud case has been closely watched around the country. An estimated two-thirds of Methodists support the ban on non-celibate gay clergy – which is based on Scripture and church tradition – despite repeated efforts by a dissident camp to repeal it.
In her December trial, a jury of 13 ministers stripped Stroud of her ordination for “engaging in practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings.” The trial came after she announced in a 2003 sermon that she was living in a “covenant relationship” with another woman.
Her Germantown congregation, a haven of liberal sentiment, has strongly supported Stroud and kept her on the staff, though as a lay minister.
In March 2004, the Rev. Karen Damman faced a trial similar to Stroud’s in Washington state, where gay-rights sentiment is widespread. Damman was acquitted after jurors said the Book of Discipline did not specifically list same-sex activity as a “chargeable offense” for ministers.
Church procedures did not allow the denomination to appeal. An uproar ensued over Damman’s acquittal, prompting the Judicial Council to declare homosexual acts to be a chargeable offense. The Stroud test was the first test of the tightened rules.
A third “self-avowed, practicing lesbian” minister, Rose Mary Denman, was tried in 1987 in New England and defrocked. She did not appeal.