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Church court rulings provide flashpoint for different groups

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Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud

April 19, 2006

By United Methodist News Service

Many eyes will be on the United Methodist Judicial Council when it meets this month, as people observe how the court handles requests that it reconsider two previous rulings on pastoral authority.

Those decisions, issued last fall (see related story), add another dimension to the United Methodist Church's decades-long debate about homosexuality. The church's Book of Discipline states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching but that homosexuals are persons of sacred worth.

Noting that the Judicial Council meeting is a week away, the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group, announced April 18 that it has collected 75 signatures on a letter to denomination leaders asking for full inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the life of the church. The signers, whose names are being kept confidential, are all clergy members who have one of those sexual orientations, according to the network.

The 75 clergy members said they feared coming out of the closet and losing their credentials, since the denomination bars the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. They specifically cited former clergywoman Beth Stroud of Pennsylvania, who lost her credentials in 2005 after announcing that she was in a lesbian relationship.

The letter represents "hundreds of clergy" serving the United Methodist Church, said Joretta Marshall, chairperson of the Reconciling Ministries Network. "Their voices and experiences are silenced out of fear of losing their standing in the church and, as a result, fear of losing their ability to respond to the call of God for their lives. It is a tragedy that so many good pastoral leaders have to hide and live in fear when they have gifts and graces in abundance to share."

The letter is the latest in a series of statements issued around the church. In February, the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church responded to two decisions by the Judicial Council — one that returned to the pulpit a pastor who had denied membership to a practicing homosexual and another that upheld the defrocking of an openly lesbian pastor.

The association expressed "deep concern for the pain and alienation" of those affected by the Judicial Council decision reinstating the Rev. Ed Johnson of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church. The resolution was adopted in March by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry's Division of Higher Education.

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The Rev. James V. Heidinger II

The schools also affirmed the denomination's theme of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," and said they welcomed students to their campuses "regardless of their race or ethnicity, their creed, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation."

Meeting later that month, the Good News evangelical group, another unofficial United Methodist caucus, issued a statement criticizing the association's resolution and affirming the Judicial Council decisions.

"Good News is distressed that the presidents of all of our United Methodist schools and colleges not only disagreed with the Judicial Council's upholding of the Rev. Ed Johnson's postponement of church membership to an openly practicing homosexual but also expressed disagreement with Decision 1027, which upheld the removal of ministerial credentials from Beth Stroud, who was found guilty in a church trial of being in a lesbian relationship," said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News in Wilmore, Ky.

"The (college) leaders affirmed ?the core humanistic and religious value that all persons are of sacred worth and equal standing,' but that does not mean that all persons are equally qualified for Christian ministry," Heidinger said. "That is why we have clear, carefully developed standards for ordained ministry. Sadly, they missed an opportunity to uphold the church's Scriptural teaching on holy living."

The Judicial Council will consider requests to reconsider two decisions that it made regarding the Johnson case when it meets April 26-29 in Overland Park, Kan.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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Appeals ask Judicial Council to reconsider two decisions
Two Judicial Council members add opinions to decision
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Decision No. 1031
Decision No. 1032
Rules of Practice and Procedure
Judicial Council Dockets