In a pair of decisions that bolstered conservatives, the highest court of the United Methodist Church defrocked an openly lesbian minister yesterday and reinstated a pastor who had been suspended for refusing to allow a gay man to become a member of his congregation.
The nine-member court, the Judicial Council, also ruled in two other cases that church law superseded local resolutions that were more inclusive toward gay men and lesbians.
The series of decisions come at a time when disputes over the role of gay men and women in the clergy, and whether to bless same-sex unions, are roiling the mainline churches. The rulings served to reaffirm the Methodists’ traditional stance against the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”
In the best-known of the cases decided yesterday, the Judicial Council removed from the ministry Irene Elizabeth Stroud, who told her Philadelphia congregation in 2003 that she was a lesbian in a long-term relationship with another woman.
But church experts said the most significant decision could prove to be the little-known case of the Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in South Hill, Va. Mr. Johnson’s decision to keep an openly gay man from joining his congregation was upheld by the Judicial Council as the rightful exercise of his pastoral discretion. He had been suspended for a year without pay by fellow ministers in Virginia, but the Judicial Council ordered his regional leaders to find a new appointment for him.
The church has declared in the past that there are no bars to the participation of gay men and women as lay people, but it also gives pastors discretion over their congregations. Stephen Drachler, a spokesman for the United Methodist Church, noted that gay men and lesbians were active members of thousands of Methodist churches across the country. But, speaking from a semiannual conference of bishops in North Carolina, he acknowledged of the ruling in the Johnson case: “The bishops are looking at this very carefully as far as what impact this may or may not have going forward. What sort of precedent does this create? What role does it create for bishops over their pastors? No one has answers to that yet.”
Some Methodists had voiced concerns that the debate over gay men and women could rupture their church, the country’s third-largest denomination, and cause conservatives to leave. The rulings will most likely assuage conservatives, church experts said. But the experts also said they did not expect those who want the inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the ministry to back down, even if chances of a reversal in church policy remain remote.
“The church and mood of our culture is conservative now,” said the Rev. Michele Bartlow, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where Ms. Stroud served as an associate pastor.
Ms. Bartlow said the council’s decisions sent an “unambiguous” message that the church would not tolerate openly gay people in its clergy. “But I, like many people, will stay and fight,” she said. “I think these decisions are another step in a journey, and one day the church will receive gay and lesbian people into ministry.”
Ms. Stroud was stripped of her credentials in late 2004 by a lower court of the church, but that decision was reversed on appeal last April. The Judicial Council’s ruling yesterday reinstated the original decision, and Ms. Stroud, 35, who will continue as a lay pastor at the Germantown church, said in a telephone interview that she would turn in her ordination credentials.
“I felt that I was prepared for whatever might happen,” she said, “but this has been a blow for me.”
Among the other decisions issued yesterday by the council, at a meeting in Houston, were one involving a resolution passed by the church’s California-Nevada Annual Conference and another on a resolution by the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. In an effort to discourage bias based on sexual orientation, the California resolution said such orientation should be considered innate. The Pacific Northwest resolution asserted tolerance for a plurality of views on sexuality. In both cases, the council held yesterday that church law barring gay members in the clergy superseded the resolutions.
Church experts said they were not surprised by the rulings in these cases or in the one involving Ms. Stroud. But the decision in the case of Mr. Johnson instantly sent tremors among many in the church, those experts said.
Although United Methodism prohibits openly gay people in the pulpit, it welcomes all to worship. Mr. Johnson did not forbid the gay man to attend his church but said he would not allow him to become a member, according to Carole Vaughn, spokeswoman for the Virginia Annual Conference, which includes the South Hill church.
Regional church officials tried to get Mr. Johnson to change his stance, and when he refused, his peers suspended him for a year without pay. The regional conference must now reinstate him, pay him back wages and benefits, and find a new position for him. Mr. Johnson could not be reached for comment.
“It is certainly the more interesting case because it has much broader ramifications,” said the Rev. L. Edward Phillips, a Methodist minister and associate professor of the practice of Christian worship at Duke University Divinity School. “It makes a statement about the authority of local pastors to make determinations on the fitness of members.”
“It could be used to keep gays out,” Mr. Phillips added, “and I would say unfortunately, from my position, if this ruling were used by pastors for a draconian stance on this narrow issue.”
Others welcomed the decision supporting Mr. Johnson.
“The Judicial Council made a precedent-setting decision in supporting a pastor who upheld” the Book of Discipline, the church’s compilation of laws, procedures and doctrine, said the Rev James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, an evangelical Methodist organization. “Most evangelical pastors would have made the same decision as Ed Johnson made.”
At the heart of the disputes, several clerics said, is a profound conflict among Methodists over the nature of homosexuality. “Is it something you can’t control,” Mr. Phillips said, “or something sinful and that should be repented of?”