PUGHTOWN, Pa. – The presiding judge in the church trial of a Methodist minister who declared she is a lesbian in a committed relationship ruled Wednesday that the cleric's defense could not call witnesses who would challenge the denomination's ban on sexually active gay clergy.
The decision by Joseph Yeakel (search), the retired bishop of Washington, D.C., will make it harder for the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud (search) to mount a successful defense. Stroud said after the ruling that, "to win a verdict would be an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. I don't expect that."
Yeakel issued his decision in a private session on the opening day of the trial, which included selection of 13 jurors from regional clergy.
Prosecuting attorneys said they had argued that technical and constitutional questions about the ban should be raised before the church's highest court or its legislative body, not at trial.
Testimony in the case was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
Stroud told her congregation last year that she lives with a lesbian partner, setting the stage for the United Methodist Church's (search) third trial under a law forbidding clergy who are "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." She could be defrocked if she loses.
Stroud graduated from Union Theological Seminary (search) in New York City, and was ordained and assigned in 1999 as associate pastor of Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
Two years later, Stroud held a "covenant ceremony" with her partner, Chris Paige, at Paige's Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Church of Christ.
Stroud notified her Germantown congregation of the relationship in a sermon on April 27, 2003. "I know that by telling the truth about myself I risk losing my credentials," she said, but decided "my walk with Christ requires telling the whole truth."
Stroud has said that if she is defrocked, the Germantown congregation has already promised that she can continue her current educational, pastoral and preaching work under lay status, though she would no longer be able to preside at baptisms or communion services.
"I'm aware that a lot of folks are watching this case," Stroud said, noting that she and her church have received hundreds of supportive letters, e-mails and phone calls. But "for me it really is a very personal faith issue."
The Rev. Thomas Hall of Exton, Pa., was assigned by the regional bishop to present the church's case. He said the trial involves "any denomination's authority to hold ministers accountable to the sacred trust they have agreed upon" when they were ordained.
The UMC's 1984 law barring "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the ministry was reaffirmed by a 72 percent vote at the Methodists' General Conference in May.
Given that language, conviction might seem automatic. But last March, a church court acquitted the Rev. Karen Dammann, a pastor in Washington state who also lives openly with a same-sex partner and the Methodists' national supreme court decided it had no power to review the verdict.
In the other such trial, the Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire was defrocked in 1987.
Other denominations debating the gay clergy issue include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Episcopal Church's approval of a gay bishop has alienated U.S. conservatives and divided fellow Anglicans worldwide.