Three days before a December 29 PBS documentary on the trials facing her Philadelphia neighborhood congregation was set to air nationwide, lesbian Methodist minister Beth Stroud an-nounced her decision to appeal a December 2 Pennsylvania church court’s ruling that defrocked her.
Stroud, who first announced her relationship with her partner Chris Paige to the congregants of First United Methodist Church of Germantown in April 2003, was barred from ministry for violating the UMC’s law against “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” serving as clergy.
Since the court’s decision, Stroud has served as a lay minister in the Philadelphia neighborhood church.
Although Stroud, Paige and her supportive, liberal congregation spent more than a year readying for the trial, the minister acknowledged that she had no idea how exhausting the ordeal would prove. Explaining that she is basically a private person, Stroud said she was unprepared to put herself constantly in the spotlight.
In reaching her decision to appeal, Stroud acknowledged that a key factor was a statement shared with her privately after the church trial by Retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, the presiding judge at the trial. Yeakel, who supported her ouster, told Stroud “the day will come when the church apologizes for this decision.”
Stroud will appeal two major aspects of the court’s ruling. The first is that Yeakel specifically excluded people from the jury pool who, for matters of conscience, felt they couldn’t abide by provisions in the Methodist Rules of Discipline that bar lesbians and gay men from serving as ordained clergy.
The second is that she contends she has not violated the Constitution of the United Methodist Church.
“I believe that the provisions of the Discipline that were cited in the charge are superceded by others that say that the Methodist Church abhors discrimination of all kinds and calls upon us to be inclusive of all peoples,” Stroud explained in a phone interview on Monday. “Our discipline says that gay and lesbian people are people of sacred worth in the eyes of God.”
Yeakel refused to allow Stroud the opportunity to challenge the Book of Discipline on the grounds that it violates Christian principles of the Bible and the church’s Constitution. The court also blocked her from citing a March 2004 Methodist decision that found open lesbian minister Rev. Karen Dammann of Seattle not guilty of engaging in “practices incompatible with Christian teachings.”
While Stroud was initially concerned that an appeal might serve to further polarize members of the international Methodist community, she ultimately determined that the church as a whole needs to wrestle further with the issue of conscience.
“The UMC laws on homosexuality were adopted by majority vote in general conference,” she explained. “But how do we live together as a church community when a significant minority views the decision barring lesbian and gay men from ministry as morally wrong? How do you honor the minority and hold the church together?”
Stroud held off announcing her decision until after she spent a “wonderful, quiet Christmas” with her parents, her lesbian sister, and her sister’s pregnant partner. “We’re looking forward to watching the documentary with Chris’ parents and becoming aunts in a couple of months,” she proclaimed.
The weeks since the verdict have proven “very different and very hard” for Stroud. The first Sunday that she preached in street clothes and proceeded into the sanctuary without her vestments, she felt the pain of her “very significant loss.”
“I felt similar on Christmas eve,” she acknowledged. “Just before leading the service for children ages two to six, I was close to tears. But with the help of encouraging words from my colleague Rev. Fred Day, I was able to go forward.”
The case now goes to an appeals panel of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which covers twelve states plus the District of Columbia. The hearing should begin within five months.
If the Northeastern Jurisdiction decides that the initial trial procedure that barred sympathetic jury members and refused to hear arguments concerning the Methodist Church Constitution was incorrect, it could either order a second Pennsylvania trial or refer questions on interpretation to the church’s national Judicial Council. Either way, the 1984 Methodist General Conference’s gay ban will become the subject of renewed intensive dialogue among Christians worldwide.
“If ultimately civil society is going to change and accept, include and honor all loving families and people,” Stroud said, “the Church is going to have to be involved in that change.
“It’s very often in the church that people’s hearts, minds and values are changed. Even in churches where the official rules say something else, the teachings of the church continue to shape people who value inclusion.”
Stroud is a former New Yorker, who in her 20s, served as founding editor of LGNY, whose principals went on to launch Gay City News in 2002.
The PBS documentary on Stroud’s Germantown church, “The Congregation,” which looks at a range of leadership controversies including her associate pastorship, premieres on Wednesday evening, December 29 at 9:30 p.m. Check pbs.org for re-broadcast times for this film by Alan and Susan Raymond.