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Published: Saturday, 11/5/2005

Methodists distressed by rulings

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Shepler/Holdridge Shepler/Holdridge
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Devastating, chilling, disturbing, appalling.

Those are some of the words United Methodist pastors used in reacting to rulings this week by the denomination's Judicial Council on issues involving homosexuality.

The Judicial Council is the highest court in the 10-million Protestant denomination.

In one of the verdicts issued Monday, the nine-member Judicial Council revoked a Philadelphia-area minister's credentials because she is a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual," which the denomination's Book of Discipline, or constitution, forbids for ordained clergy.

In a separate ruling, the panel upheld a Virginia pastor's right to deny church membership to a gay man.

While the Judicial Council is the United Methodist Church's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court and cannot be overturned, the Council of Bishops has in the past sent decisions back to the council and asked the court to reconsider.

Like most mainline Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church has been wrestling over issues of homosexuality for years.

The case of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud began in April, 2003, when the pastor wrote a letter to the First United Methodist Church of Germantown's congregation stating that she was "a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner."

In December, 2004, the regional conference found her guilty of "engaging in practices declared incompatible with Christian teaching" and revoked her credentials.

Ms. Stroud appealed to a higher church court, which overturned the ruling in April and reinstated her, and her case was then sent to the Judicial Council.

"The Judicial Council's overturning of the ruling about Beth Stroud is a big disappointment to me, but not a big surprise," said the Rev. Cheri Holdridge, pastor of Central United Methodist Church. "It's a sad day for those of us who believe in full clergy rights for gay and lesbian people. But it's been a sad day for years."

Efforts to revise church law to allow the ordination of openly gay clergy and to acknowledge disagreement over biblical interpretations on homosexuality were shot down at the United Methodist Church's General Conference in Pittsburgh last year. The next national assembly won't be held until 2008.

The Rev. Karen Shepler, pastor of Monroe Street United Methodist Church, also was disheartened by the Stroud ruling.

"My reaction when I read it in the paper was sadness," Ms. Shepler said. "Our stance as a church is still fuzzy enough that we need to clean it up before having more trials like this one. There are a lot of definitions that are just not there, and that was part of Beth Stroud's point."

In a separate ruling, the Judicial Council upheld the right of the Rev. Edward Johnson of South Hills, Va., to bar a gay man from becoming a member of his church.

That verdict was more disturbing than the Stroud decision, according to several local ministers.

The Rev. Chester Chambers, a retired minister who is a member of the United Methodists for Social Action, said the head of that group called the decision "chilling in its implications" and said there "are no limits to who might be refused membership."

"The ruling in the Johnson case just appalled me," Ms. Shepler said. "I don't understand how a pastor can decide not to bring somebody into the congregation because of what they believe. I think it's ethically wrong."

"People are going nuts over that decision," Ms. Holdridge said. "The ruling that a local pastor has authority to decide who would be a church member goes against Methodist polity. If a person is willing to take the vows of the church, then they are welcome in the church. The Book of Discipline says homosexuals are 'persons of sacred worth' and are to be welcomed into the church."

A key concern for the Toledo ministers is that pastors now have free reign in deciding who can become members. There are some church offices that can only be held by members, which limits the input and status of laity who were barred from membership.

"This decision is huge. It gives so much power to pastors," Ms. Holdridge said. "They can decide that people who are divorced, who smoke, or who drink alcohol are not welcome in the church. They just really overstepped their bounds."

Ms. Shepler wondered if a person's view of the U.S. war in Iraq could be used against them in deciding candidacy for membership.

"Since I'm a peace person and the church does not support the war, if there's someone who supports the war can I say I don't want them in there? We could look at a whole bunch of issues like that," she said.

"We think that probably many conservatives as well as liberals in the church will not be happy with that ruling," Mr. Chambers said. "It certainly will be a major concern at the 2008 General Conference but that's a long time to live with it."

He said the ruling goes against the United Methodist motto, "Open doors, open hearts, open minds," and against the spirit of John Wesley, founder of the denomination, who promoted free thinking.

The Rev. Philip Park-Thomas, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church on Dorr Street, disagrees with Mr. Johnson's decision to ban the gay man from membership, but said the Judicial Council's ruling was based more on procedural matters and church polity than the debate over homosexuality.

The church hierarchy needs to define the pastor's authority to limit membership as a means of "protecting his congregation," Mr. Park-Thomas said, "but I wish it had not come to the court because of the issue of homosexuality."

Ms. Holdridge said she is working to help those who feel rejected by the United Methodist Church with a national, unofficial ministry she helped found called Church Within a Church.

"It's the last stop for people who can't take it anymore but want to stay United Methodist," she explained. "We're not trying to reform the United Methodist Church. We're leaving that to others. We want to create new ministries that are loosely related to the United Methodist Church but not under the authority of the United Methodist Church."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.

In a separate ruling, the Judicial Council upheld the right of the Rev. Edward Johnson of South Hills, Va., to bar a gay man from becoming a member of his church.

That verdict was more disturbing than the Stroud decision, according to several local ministers.

The Rev. Chester Chambers, a retired minister who is a member of the United Methodists for Social Action, said the head of that group called the decision "chilling in its implications" and said there "are no limits to who might be refused membership."

"The ruling in the Johnson case just appalled me," Ms. Shepler said. "I don't understand how a pastor can decide not to bring somebody into the congregation because of what they believe. I think it's ethically wrong."

"People are going nuts over that decision," Ms. Holdridge said. "The ruling that a local pastor has authority to decide who would be a church member goes against Methodist polity. If a person is willing to take the vows of the church, then they are welcome in the church. The Book of Discipline says homosexuals are 'persons of sacred worth' and are to be welcomed into the church."

A key concern for the Toledo ministers is that pastors now have free reign in deciding who can become members. There are some church offices that can only be held by members, which limits the input and status of laity who were barred from membership.

"This decision is huge. It gives so much power to pastors," Ms. Holdridge said. "They can decide that people who are divorced, who smoke, or who drink alcohol are not welcome in the church. They just really overstepped their bounds."

Ms. Shepler wondered if a person's view of the U.S. war in Iraq could be used against them in deciding candidacy for membership.

"Since I'm a peace person and the church does not support the war, if there's someone who supports the war can I say I don't want them in there? We could look at a whole bunch of issues like that," she said.

"We think that probably many conservatives as well as liberals in the church will not be happy with that ruling," Mr. Chambers said. "It certainly will be a major concern at the 2008 General Conference but that's a long time to live with it."

He said the ruling goes against the United Methodist motto, "Open doors, open hearts, open minds," and against the spirit of John Wesley, founder of the denomination, who promoted free thinking.

The Rev. Philip Park-Thomas, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church on Dorr Street, disagrees with Mr. Johnson's decision to ban the gay man from membership, but said the Judicial Council's ruling was based more on procedural matters and church polity than the debate over homosexuality.

The church hierarchy needs to define the pastor's authority to limit membership as a means of "protecting his congregation," Mr. Park-Thomas said, "but I wish it had not come to the court because of the issue of homosexuality."

Ms. Holdridge said she is working to help those who feel rejected by the United Methodist Church with a national, unofficial ministry she helped found called Church Within a Church.

"It's the last stop for people who can't take it anymore but want to stay United Methodist," she explained. "We're not trying to reform the United Methodist Church. We're leaving that to others. We want to create new ministries that are loosely related to the United Methodist Church but not under the authority of the United Methodist Church."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.

The Rev. Chester Chambers, a retired minister who is a member of the United Methodists for Social Action, said the head of that group called the decision "chilling in its implications" and said there "are no limits to who might be refused membership."

"The ruling in the Johnson case just appalled me," Ms. Shepler said. "I don't understand how a pastor can decide not to bring somebody into the congregation because of what they believe. I think it's ethically wrong."

"People are going nuts over that decision," Ms. Holdridge said. "The ruling that a local pastor has authority to decide who would be a church member goes against Methodist polity. If a person is willing to take the vows of the church, then they are welcome in the church. The Book of Discipline says homosexuals are 'persons of sacred worth' and are to be welcomed into the church."

A key concern for the Toledo ministers is that pastors now have free reign in deciding who can become members. There are some church offices that can only be held by members, which limits the input and status of laity who were barred from membership.

"This decision is huge. It gives so much power to pastors," Ms. Holdridge said. "They can decide that people who are divorced, who smoke, or who drink alcohol are not welcome in the church. They just really overstepped their bounds."

Ms. Shepler wondered if a person's view of the U.S. war in Iraq could be used against them in deciding candidacy for membership.

"Since I'm a peace person and the church does not support the war, if there's someone who supports the war can I say I don't want them in there? We could look at a whole bunch of issues like that," she said.

"We think that probably many conservatives as well as liberals in the church will not be happy with that ruling," Mr. Chambers said. "It certainly will be a major concern at the 2008 General Conference but that's a long time to live with it." He said the ruling goes against the United Methodist motto, "Open doors, open hearts, open minds," and against the spirit of John Wesley, founder of the denomination, who promoted free thinking.

The Rev. Philip Park-Thomas, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church on Dorr Street, disagrees with Mr. Johnson's decision to ban the gay man from membership, but said the Judicial Council's ruling was based more on procedural matters and church polity than the debate over homosexuality.

The church hierarchy needs to define the pastor's authority to limit membership as a means of "protecting his congregation," Mr. Park-Thomas said, "but I wish it had not come to the court because of the issue of homosexuality."

Ms. Holdridge said she is working to help those who feel rejected by the United Methodist Church with a national, unofficial ministry she helped found called Church Within a Church.

"It's the last stop for people who can't take it any more but want to stay United Methodist," she explained. "We're not trying to reform the United Methodist Church. We're leaving that to others. We want to create new ministries that are loosely related to the United Methodist Church but not under the authority of the United Methodist Church."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.



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