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The Rev. Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud ’91 (right) hugs a member of the trial court that revoked her ministerial credentials in a United Methodist clergy trial at Camp Innabah in Pughtown, PA.

 

In her “coming out” sermon in 2003 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (Fumcog), Associate Pastor Beth Stroud ’91 said the most powerful “witness we offer to the larger church is not the witness of choking on our own righteous anger, but rather the witness of learning, more and more, how to love one another.”

Practicing now as a lay minister, Stroud gained national attention last year when the United Methodist Church declared her guilty of a practice incompatible with Christian teachings—namely being an ordained minister in an openly lesbian relationship. The Congregation, a documentary by Oscar-winning directors Alan and Susan Raymond that aired on PBS stations December 29, follows Stroud’s story and the parishioners committed to stand by her.

A United Methodist Church clergy trial, held at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist retreat center outside of Philadelphia, on December 2, found Stroud guilty, 12-1, of violating a church rule against the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” and voted to defrock her, 7-6.

Driven by the desire to see her church reverse its stance on homosexuality, and the need to remain spiritually true to herself and her ministry, Stroud is appealing the verdict.

In a letter to her parishioners, Stroud called her decision to appeal a “worthwhile step that could keep an important discussion alive within the United Methodist Church.” Her case, she says, has put a human face on questions of sexuality and faith. “Ithelping some people to look at these issues in a different way, and I think that serves the church.”

Fumcog claims 1,000 members who believe in Stroud so much that, after she was defrocked, they reinstated her status in the church as Associate Minister for Education and Youth Programs on December 7. Her compensation and duties remain the same except that she cannot give communion, perform weddings or baptisms, or wear a stole.

Fumcog is part of the national United Methodist movement, Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.

Beth Stroud ’91 is consoled by her lead counsel, the Rev. J. Dennis Williams, after hearing the church trial court read a verdict of guilty against her on December 2, 2004. PA. At right is Alan Symonette, her assistant counsel.

History lessons

Officially, the United Methodist Church—the third largest denomination in the United States—forbids the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” This policy was reached through a democratic majority vote, which Stroud believes reflects “a widespread understanding of scripture at this point in history.”

But history shows many instances of misinterpreted scripture. “If you look back 150 years ago, many, many Christians believed that slavery was just part of God’s natural plan for the world and that slavery was blessed by God, and they could point to very specific chapters and verses in the Bible to support that belief,” Stroud says. “What’s challenging for us as a denomination is to look at scripture as sacred and as holy, but also to use the gift of reason that God gives us to draw conclusions about what scripture really says for our lives.” Church law, she says, has evolved throughout history—and should continue to evolve. 

The April 28 appeal before the church’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals will allow Stroud and five volunteer attorneys (Fumcog members) to pose an imperative question—one they were not permitted to pose at the trial.The prohibition against openly gay and lesbian people serving in ministry, they say, is inconsistent with the church’s consititution, which states that homosexuals have ’sacred worth” and that sexuality is “God’s good gift to all persons.”

United Methodist Church doctrine also states: “Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the church, the community, and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.”

Members of First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, and other supporters of Beth Stroud ’91, outside her trial.

Stroud looks forward to a successful appeal so that she can serve again as an ordained pastor in the United Methodist church, to which she retains a profound allegiance. More important, however, is the process of education—and the mutual discernment of God’s will—that the appeal will generate. “Working this out in the community of the church in a healthy way is very valuable,” she says.

She told her congregation that “...as the situation develops it will be more important than ever for us all to be together, to break bread with one another, to slow down and listen to each other and really be a community.”

Ultimately, she hopes the church will realize that it has been wrong in its stance on homosexuality, and on human sexuality in general.

“The United Methodist Church and all of the mainline Protestant denominations can come to be churches that genuinely welcome people just as they are,” she says. “Certainly they will continue to speak out about sin and right and wrong, but they will realize that it

is heterosexism, and not homosexuality, that is the sin in this case. I think people will be drawn to churches that are open and inclusive, and it will open the door for many, many people to be able to cultivate a relationship with God that they’re just not able to cultivate in the churches now.”

About the making of The Congregation, Stroud said she “never quite got used to the filmmakers’ presence. I always felt a little awkward and uncomfortable on camera. However, I’m very grateful that the Raymonds were able to tell my story in the context of the daily life and work and ministry of the congregation, which is where it unfolded. Most of the response to the film has been very positive, and we’ve had new visitors coming to church because of it, which has been terrific.”

Buoyed by Bryn Mawr

Bryn Mawr still plays a part in Stroud’s day-to-day decision-making. She recalls not only the “high pressure academics,” but also the “high pressure social environment, in terms of morals and values and the types of things that we were dreaming about achieving.” Bryn Mawr cultivated in her a certain capacity for grace under pressure, she says.

Stroud has been surprised and encouraged by the supportive letters and emails she has received from Mawrters across the country. “Alumnae seem to want to reach out and make contact in some way—especially those who have been following the case and then realize that I am from Bryn Mawr.” On April 14, she spoke and answered questions at the College’s religious life house, Aelwyd, on Cambrian Row.

At the time of this writing, Stroud was expecting to learn the date for the appeal hearing, and was busy preparing documents with her attorneys.

Stroud’s coming-out sermon can be read online.

 

Update: Stroud declines reappointment

The December 2, 2004, decision by a United Methodist Church trial court to revoke the ministerial credentials of Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud ’91 was reversed on two questions of legal process in an April 29 decision by the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals.

On May 3, Bishop Marcus Matthews returned Stroud’s ordination credentials, offering her an appointment to First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG), and announced his decision to appeal the case to the Judicial Council. Stroud, however, has declined the appointment until her case is concluded.

“I thought the right thing for me to do was to turn it down,” she told the United Methodist News Service, explaining that she did not want to be a “political football” for various parts of the denomination. “That could just trivialize what ordination is and means.” She is on voluntary leave of absence as a clergy member and will continue her work as a lay minister at FUMCOG.

 

 

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