In a ruling issued this morning, the supreme court of the United Methodist Church ordered Germantown minister Beth Stroud defrocked for violating the denomination’s ban on actively gay clergy.
The ruling, which is final, reinstates the verdict that a jury of Methodist clergy imposed after a high-profile church trial in December. In April, an appellate panel had overturned the defrocking verdict on procedural grounds, prompting the appeal to the top court.
“I’m pretty sad,” Stroud said in a phone interview. “This is hard news to absorb.”
Stroud, 35, has become a figurehead in Protestantism‘s ongoing struggle over gay rights. She is the third gay United Methodist pastor to be tried, and the second to be defrocked, in 18 years. Hers was the only case to reach its top court.
The 6-2 decision by that court, the Judicial Council, rejected the appellate panel’s ruling and held that Stroud “was accorded all fair and due process rights enumerated” in Methodist church law and governance.
The denomination’s Book of Discipline prohibits the ordination and appointment of practicing gays and lesbians. Homosexuals can be ordained under that policy, but they must remain celibate.
Stroud challenged the policy when she gave a sermon in April 2003 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where she was associate pastor, announcing that she was living in a “covenant relationship” with another woman.
In December, after a two-day trial at a church retreat center near Pottstown, a jury of 13 ministers voted, 12-1, to convict Stroud of “engaging in practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings.” They then voted, 7-6, to strip her of her ordained ministry.
A regional appeals panel set aside the verdict. Its surprise ruling held that the trial court had improperly disallowed some constitutional arguments and that United Methodist governing bodies need to clarify several key concepts in the same-sex debate.
The Judicial Council ruled that the appellate panel had erred on all fronts. It rejected arguments that it had overstepped its authority in prior rulings on homosexuality issues, and that the definitions of key concepts were sufficiently vague to deprive Stroud of a fair trial.
While she awaited the final judgment from the Judicial Council, Stroud had remained as a lay minister at her gay-affirming Germantown church. Stroud said today that she will remain in that job and will continue to travel and speak out for a liberalization of the denomination’s rules.
She also said she and her partner of four year, Chris Paige, have been approved to be foster parents and that she plans to begin a maternity leave next month.
“We’re excited about that,” Stroud said. “In some small way, it’s a relief to be able to proceed forward and have this case be behind us.”
Although homosexuality issues have divided the 8-million-member denomination for decades, its majority supports the traditional ban on non-celibate gay clergy. Observers had expected the Judicial Council to uphold policy and reinstate Stroud’s defrocking.
Among the council’s members is the Rev. Dennis L. Blackwell, a pastor in Merchantville, Camden County.
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