On October 29, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church–the denomination’s highest church court–removed an openly-homosexual woman from service as an ordained minister. The council defrocked Irene Elizabeth Stroud, who had in 2003 announced to her Pennsylvania congregation that she was a practicing lesbian. The case was widely understood to be a test of the church’s ministerial standards as codified in its Book of Discipline.
As The New York Times reports, 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.”
This case is undoubtedly important, for Ms. Stroud’s case represented a direct assault upon the church’s doctrine and discipline. Yet, the Times is surely on to something when it observes that the Council’s decision in a second case may be even more important: 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.”
The United Methodist Church, along with many other “mainline Protestant” denominations, is deeply divided over the issue of homosexuality. The texts of the Council’s decisions indicate that several members would like to have ruled otherwise, but they were constrained by the actual wording of the church’s laws. These two decisions [see Stroud decision and Johnson decision] may give conservatives within the United Methodist Church the gift of more time in which to make their case for a biblical view of human sexuality.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: “United Methodists Reach a Verdict,” December 8, 2004; ”The Congregation’–Conflict Comes Out of the Closet,” January 10, 2005; “Methodists Reinstate Lesbian Minister,” April 30, 2005.