TV & Radio
The New York Times
October 21, 2005
Methodist Divisions Over Gays Intensify
By NEELA BANERJEE
Kevin P. Casey for The New York Times
Cathy Bihler, left, who left the United Methodist Church in Edmonds, Wash., because of its acceptance of gays, with her new prayer group.
Sabina Louise Pierce for The New York Times
Barbara Revere, left, chats with the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, a lesbian who is fighting a bid to defrock her.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - In Virginia, the pastor of a United Methodist church is challenging a decision by his peers to suspend him for a year without pay because he barred a gay man from joining his congregation.
In California, a regional conference of the church voted to protect openly gay clergy members from discrimination and dismissal. And in Pennsylvania, the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud is fighting a ruling by the church to defrock her after she disclosed to her congregation that she was a lesbian in a long relationship with another woman.
The confluence of the cases underscores the intensifying debate within the denomination on the role of gay men and lesbians in the pews and in the pulpit. The highest judicial body of the United Methodist Church is expected to rule on them when it meets in Houston for one of its two annual gatherings, starting Oct. 27.
The United Methodist Church, the country's third-largest denomination, has struggled for 30 years to define and then further refine its stance on homosexuality. But in its effort to accommodate disparate views, it has fashioned a position that some clergy members say is ambiguous, even contradictory, and people are demanding clarification.
The church's official policy is to welcome all people, regardless of sexual orientation, into its congregations. Gay people can also serve in the clergy, as long as they are celibate. But church rules ban "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from the ministry.
"I'm sure there will be more of these cases and they will accelerate because the issue is not at all resolved in the church," said the Rev. Richard S. Parker, a retired Methodist minister in Babylon, N.Y.
Mr. Parker, a former chairman of the church and society committee in the denomination's General Conference in the 1980's, when the church articulated rules on gay clergy members, said, "Those of us who support full inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are not interested in backing off."
Neither are those who would like to limit the involvement of gays in the church. In Edmonds, Wash., for example, about 200 people left the Edmonds United Methodist Church in late 2003 because of its support for an openly gay music director, said Cathy Bihler, one of those who left and a board member of Good News, a conservative Methodist group.
"Those of us who agree with the authority of Scripture and traditional Christian doctrine cannot condone a practice incompatible with church teaching," Ms. Bihler said.
The Judicial Council will also review a case filed by Ms. Bihler and her minister, the Rev. Rick Vinther, pastor at Woodinville Community United Methodist Church in Washington, that opposes a resolution passed by their regional conference this year asserting tolerance for the plurality of views about sexual orientation.
Ms. Bihler and Mr. Vinther maintain that such a resolution contradicts Methodist teachings. The Rev. Dean Snyder, pastor of the liberal Foundry Methodist Church in Washington and the moderator of a Web log, www.untiedmethodist.com, said that on his site "there is increased attention to the issue, an increase in openness to gays and an increase in resistance, all at the same time."
The Rev. Thomas W. Ogletree, a Methodist minister and professor of theological ethics at the Yale School of Divinity, noted that at the church's last General Conference in 2004, a coalition of churches was beginning to emerge that threatened to leave the denomination because of its tolerance toward gay men and lesbians.
When Ms. Stroud, 35, revealed to her congregation in April 2003 that she lived in a long-term relationship with her partner, Chris Paige, she acknowledged in a sermon that she risked losing her credentials as an ordained minister. But she added, "I have realized that not telling the whole truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith."
In December 2004, a jury of 13 clergy members in eastern Pennsylvania found her guilty of violating church law and ordered her defrocked. An appeals committee overturned that decision in April because of legal technicalities, and Ms. Stroud's bishop took the case before the Judicial Council, akin to the Supreme Court and made up of nine clergy members and lay people.
Church experts said they thought the council would probably strip Ms. Stroud of her ordination. But even if she wins, Ms. Stroud says she does not expect the larger question of whether to exclude practicing gay people from the ministry to be addressed. Instead, she said, a victory would probably rely on technicalities like the vagueness of the church's definition of practicing homosexuals. She said she expected the next General Conference in 2008 would move to close such loopholes.
The rule to keep practicing homosexuals from the ministry has passed by a slimmer and slimmer margin at each General Conference, said Mr. Snyder, indicating a dwindling of resistance. But some, like the Rev. Edward Johnson of South Hill, Va., are standing firm against a change in the rules.
Mr. Johnson refused to admit a gay man into the congregation of South Hill United Methodist Church, said Carole Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the church's Virginia Annual Conference, its regional governing body. After trying to persuade Mr. Johnson, the church's pastor for six years, to change his mind, his peers in the conference voted in June to place him on "involuntary leave of absence" for a year. If he loses his appeal before the Judicial Council and does not change his position, he will probably be let go, Ms. Vaughn said. Mr. Johnson could not be reached for comment.
The Judicial Council will also be looking at the legality of a resolution made by the clergy of the California-Nevada Annual Conference to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation anywhere in the church, including among clergy.
The conference stated that sexual orientation should be considered an innate characteristic, like race. Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, head of the California-Nevada conference, who does not vote on issues, said the resolution was only a guideline and did not challenge or supersede church law and it was being reviewed as a matter of course. But other clergy members and lay people said they saw it as a jab at church policy.
In the shadow of these cases, anxiety is growing among some Methodists that the church could split over homosexuality, as it did over slavery in the mid-1800's. The likely outcome, some clergy members said, is that those who oppose liberalizing the church's position on gays will leave.
"I wouldn't be surprised if a split happened over this," Mr. Ogletree of Yale said. "The Methodist Church will get through this, of course, but we will have a big challenge holding things together."