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Gay pastor defends her call to ministry

Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud told a United Methodist Church court on Wednesday that she lives with her lesbian partner, but refused to plead guilty to violating the denomination’s ban on gay clerics.
Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, center, walks with her partner, Chris Paige, at left, Wednesday on the first day of Stroud's church court trial in Pughtown, Pa.Jacqueline Larma / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Facing the possible loss of her Methodist clergy credentials, the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud freely told a church court Wednesday that she lives with her lesbian partner but refused to plead guilty to violating the denomination’s ban on gay clerics.

“For me to plead guilty would be to say I violated the sacred trust of an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church,” Stroud said. “I believe I have not violated that trust.”

Stroud, an associate pastor in Philadelphia, is being tried for violating the Methodists’ law against “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” in the ministry. Two other lesbian ministers have been tried under that rule: One was defrocked, the other acquitted.

The Rev. Thomas Hall of Exton, Pa., prosecutor in the case, told the court Stroud’s pastoral abilities and personal qualities have never been in dispute. Nor, he said, is there any disagreement about the fact that she’s a lesbian.

Bishop Peter Weaver, formerly of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, then testified that a celibate lesbian can remain in the ministry but someone in a relationship would be violating Methodist law.

‘I was called to go home’
Under questioning by Hall, Stroud spoke of her relationship with partner Chris Paige, who listened nearby. “One aspect of our relationship is that we express our love for each other sexually and with our bodies,” Stroud said.

Stroud’s defense attorney, the Rev. J. Dennis Williams of Cornwall, Pa., asked why Stroud insisted on a career with the Methodists. “I felt I was called to go home. This is the church I grew up in,” she said.

Stroud said in an interview that while at Union Theological Seminary in New York City she considered ministry with the Episcopal Church or United Church of Christ, which have more liberal practices, but only briefly.

Hall said in his opening statement to the 13-member jury that “this may well be one of the most painful days of my life,” but the church has a duty to require clergy “accountability” to its standards.

Quoting John Wesley
Williams countered that the case might seem “a slam dunk” because church law is specific. But he noted that Methodist founder John Wesley decided women should preach “if they are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit” — despite New Testament passages that appear to forbid them from doing so.

Williams will present the defense case Thursday morning. But his maneuvering room is strictly limited due to a ruling by the presiding judge, retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel of Washington, D.C., hours before the trial opened.

Stroud’s team had planned to call a bishop, two seminary professors, a psychiatrist, a prominent pastor and a lay leader to present a highly technical case that the church’s gay policy violates its own constitution and Wesley’s inviolate Articles of Religion. Hall argued that it’s up to national Methodist court and legislative conference to decide such questions.

Yeakel agreed that such legal questions are “not relevant to this case,” but issued no formal explanation of that ruling.

Given Yeakel’s ruling, Stroud has little doubt what will happen when the jury decides, possibly by late Thursday. “To win a verdict would be an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t expect that,” she told a news conference.

Clergy jurors to decide
It requires approval of nine clergy jurors to convict and presumably defrock Stroud. If that happens, however, her supportive Philadelphia congregation has already agreed she can continue preaching, teaching and pastoral work as a lay employee. She would not, however, be able to celebrate baptism or Communion.

The points excluded witnesses would have made were summarized in a submission by one of them, the Rev. Dean Synder, pastor of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s prominent parish in Washington, D.C.:

  • The church constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of “status” and homosexuality is that sort of unchosen and unchangeable condition.
  • Church courts and conferences have not sufficiently defined what “practicing homosexual” means.
  • Wesley’s Articles of Religion said it’s wrong to require clergy to remain single, as the Roman Catholic Church does, but that’s what the Methodists are requiring of homosexuals.

The trial questions and answers were purposely stripped of emotion, though Stroud briefly paused and broke down when speaking about her feeling of being called by God to the ministry.

During the day, as many as several dozen Stroud supporters stood vigil outside the camp gymnasium where proceedings were held, sometimes in pouring rain.