HOUSTON (BP)–Conservatives within the United Methodist Church won two crucial victories regarding the issue of homosexuality when the denomination’s Judicial Council ruled that a lesbian minister should indeed be defrocked and a pastor who had refused to allow an unrepentant homosexual to join his congregation should be reinstated.
The decisions were handed down in conjunction with the court’s Oct. 26-29 fall meeting in Houston and set the tone for the immediate future of the Methodist church, indicating it might not dash down the path to unrestrained liberalism that other mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church USA have taken.
In a 6-2 decision, the Judicial Council reversed an appeals court ruling and restored the original trial court verdict in the case of Irene Elizabeth Stroud, an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., who disclosed to her congregation that she was participating in an active homosexual relationship.
A clergy trial court last December convicted Stroud of violating church law, which forbids the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals. The court rescinded Stroud’s credentials, and she moved into a lay leadership position at the church. But an appeals committee for the denomination’s Northeast Jurisdiction overturned the jury’s decision in April, ruling that the church’s policies regarding homosexuality were contradictory.
“The Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals erred in reversing and setting aside the verdict and penalty from Rev. Stroud’s trial,” the Judicial Council said in its eight-page ruling, according to a release by the United Methodist News Service Oct. 31.
The appeals committee was without jurisdiction in its interpretation of the denomination’s Book of Discipline to establish a new standard of doctrine contrary to the existing rules, the court said, and the original trial court “correctly stated the law of the church.”
In response to the ruling, Stroud said in a telephone interview with the news service that she “will continue to stay in the United Methodist Church and work for change. Today’s decision shows that the existing discrimination in the United Methodist Church is clear. There’s no room to be in denial about that. But if you stay in the relationship, there is opportunity for conversation.”
The Judicial Council also said the Book of Discipline does not ban people with same-sex orientation from the ministry; it only bans those who act on those desires just as it bans heterosexuals who practice their orientation in prohibited ways such as outside the bounds of fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.
In the second major case dealing with homosexuality, the Judicial Council ruled 5-3 that pastors in the denomination do have the power to decide who becomes a member of a local church after a Virginia pastor was placed on involuntary leave of absence for refusing to allow a homosexual man to move his membership to the church.
Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in South Hill, Va., was placed on involuntary leave without pay in June after he kept a man from joining the church roll because the man would neither repent nor seek to live a different lifestyle, according to the Methodist news service.
The court said the Book of Discipline “invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership,” and they ordered that Johnson be immediately reinstated to the status he held before being placed on leave of absence, including all salary and benefits retroactive to July 1.
Mark Tooley, director of The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s program for United Methodists, said in an Oct. 31 news release, “Thankfully, the Judicial Council has upheld the clear meaning of United Methodism’s standards on marriage and sex, which have been repeatedly ratified by the church’s governing General Conference every four years since 1972.”
He added, “Undoubtedly, some in the declining regions of the church will continue to try to find ways to circumvent church law,” referring to Methodists in the Northeast and West Coast, where membership is swiftly falling. “The debate over this issue will certainly continue for some years. But the future of the church, whose membership is increasingly international, belongs to the theological orthodoxy and historic Christianity.”