Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Just Heard Beth Stroud Speak

If you recall, Beth Stroud is the United Methodist minister defrocked in a church trial after coming out of the closet in a sermon last year, and a prominent part of the PBS documentary The Congregation.

Stroud came to speak before an audience of 150 people at a Lenten Luncheon in conservative Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Of all places.

The crowd squeezed in the basement of Grandview UMC was hardly any different than that attending any Lenten Lunch: mostly cottontops, a few seminarians here and there. Weirdo UCC pastor in the back.

Stroud positioned herself on a stool on the fellowship hall stage, and declared that she had brought her watch because she knew "many of you need to get back to work." A few minutes later, the mic she was using slipped down on its stand, and the pastor had to run up to adjust it. Stroud claimed to be too busy to notice.

She told the audience that unlike many people these days, she was a "cradle United Methodist," with roots in the church that go back to her grandparents.

She grew up in a congregation in surburban Philadelphia that felt to her like a "second home or extended family". In fact, she and her parents were there so often that the janitor joked with them that he ought to provide them a spare key so they could let themselves out.

When Stroud came to the realization that she was a lesbian, it became difficult for her to remain a Christian. She got the cold shoulder from the campus ministry group she attended in college. And when she returned to her home church, she was startled to notice the casually homophobic or racist comments made by fellow parishioners.

But when the First United Methodist Church of Germantown voted to become a "reconciling" church (one officially welcoming of gays and lesbians), she felt confident enough in her faith to join the congregation. FUMCOG nutured her, she said, and encouraged her to consider seminary. Eventually, she did go to Union Theological Seminary in New York where she experienced another "crisis of faith."

She dropped out of seminary and began working with an AIDS organization. She also took a job with a local paper, and in the course of interviewing four gay clergypeople, experienced a new call to ministry. She returned to seminary, was ordained, and eventually, with much "prayer and reflection" with members of FUMCOG, decided to come out of the closet. (She was very emphatic on this last point: the decision was made with the congregation, and over the course of time. It was not dropped like a bombshell on the Sunday morning captured by The Congregation.)

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the session, however, was the Q&A. Stroud answered one for herself: why, she said she'd been asked many times before, are you not more angry?

Her response: she'd been angry for a long time before the trial, which seemed to her the "logical conclusion" of her struggle. And yet, she remains hopeful that something positive can come of this, especially if she can help people to see the issue not as a matter of abstract principles, but as about a human being.

Other exchanges (paraphrasing much of this):
  • Is there any hope to change the Book of Discipline at the Methodist General Convention? Yes, and it's worth it to try. The church will still be divided no matter what we do, but trying to change the Book of Discipline is less divisive than a judicial outcome.

  • A woman commended Stroud for her courage. "This is what Christians do," she responded, recounting visitors to FUMCOG after her defrocking saying to her "there's something to this thing of loving your enemies".

  • Another woman observed that the church jury that decided Stroud's fate was biased; apparently, potential jurors were asked to sign a pledge stating that they could vote to uphold the Book of Discipline and punish Stroud. Several potential members answered that in honesty and conscience they could not, and were excluded from the jury. This will be a part of the Stroud's appeal of the case.

  • Someone asked how Stroud could have made it through the ordination process. Her response: "People have an amazing ability not to see what they don't want to see."

  • The same woman who commented on the jury spoke about the other clergy present at the trial who she knew to be gay, and who would have to then make some very difficult decisions about whether or not to come out of the closet in light of the jury's decision. Stroud acknowledged their difficulties, without demanding that they follow her example.

I spoke to Stroud briefly after her speech. She didn't know about dKos, but she promised to check us out. She seems almost painfully shy, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to ask her for a picture.

But when I asked her if she had anything she'd like to say to her online supporters, her eyes got moist, and she took my hands in hers and said, "Thanks for the prayers. Thanks for the prayers."

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Chris T. said...

Thanks for the summary of Beth's talk--I wish I lived out that way and could have seen it. :-)

I found the whole jury selection thing really odd. The idea behind that pledge was to cut out the idea of jury nullification. Which is fine in a secular court case, but I feel like as Christians our book of discipline or statement of normative doctrine should *always* be on trial. We're humans, we screw stuff up, and the Holy Spirit usually tells us about it--why silence the Spirit if it's speaking through a jury in a church trial instead of a general assembly?

At 8:45 PM, Blogger pastordan said...

Chris--that was more or less Beth's take on it. The way she put was that for Methodists, to take conscience out of anything they did was theologically problematic.

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