December 1- 7, 2005
: Michael T. Regan
A lesbian minister contemplates life in the church that defrocked her. (And why she's sticking around.)
The Rev. Beth Stroud spent her last morning as an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, not teaching a confirmation class or visiting the sick, but watching her e-mail inbox. It was Monday, Oct. 31. Family and clergy members had crowded a cramped office in the Germantown church where Stroud was serving as associate pastor, all anxiously awaiting the news.
At 8:50 a.m., it arrived. Decision No. 1027. For the second time in the last year, Stroud was defrocked, stripped of her ministerial credentials by the highest court in the United Methodist Church, the country's third largest denomination. She stood guilty, the court said, of "engaging in practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." Her crime: being a lesbian in love, out of the closet and living with another woman.
Stroud had violated the denomination's ban on noncelibate gay clergy, broken the church law that bars "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from ordination and appointment. After two and a half years at the center of a high, and very public, dramaa church trial, a controversial appeal and a Texas showdown with the Methodist supreme courtit was over, an awkward end to a distinguished career.
Stroud wept. Her partner of five years, Chris Paige, turned to her. The two had spent months talking about winning and losing. "This was the better one, right?" she asked. The couple embraced. In a way, it was a relief. The "shadow," as they called it, had lifted. Perhaps now the hate mail would stop. A cause celebre for gay-rights advocates, Stroud had also become a lightning rod in the ongoing debate over homosexuality and the pulpit, attracting vitriol from conservative factions in the church. Winning, they thought, would have only made things worse. But beyond that was the issue of sheer exhaustion. The couple had spent half their life together in the judicial process. "My worst fear was that it would get remanded for another trial," Stroud would say later. "I thought, 'I can't go through it. I'll just have to surrender my credentials. I can't take it anymore.'"
: Michael T. Regan
But now, there was the matter of the press. Given just 10 minutes before the court ruling was made public, Stroud soon found herself in a situation that had become all too familiar in the last 18 monthsshe was the subject of a national news story, straining for composure under the bright lights and probing questions of reporters.
Assembled in a pumpkin patch on the front lawn of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, the groupStroud, her lawyer, her parents and her partnermet the media, each making statements and taking questions in a case that, they say, forced a lesbian minister to choose between the woman she loves and the job to which she feels called.
"This is a day when the discrimination in the United Methodist Church is very clear," she told reporters. "We can't have any questions or any denials about the fact that the church practices discrimination against gay and lesbian people." Yet she vowed to remain both member and lay minister, working for change from within the denomination. "I'm still hopeful for the future. The process has brought me into deeper relationship with many people that I differ and disagree with very deeply. But as long as there is a relationship I believe there's still a possibility for conversion and change."
Despite the defrocking, Stroud said she does not regret her decision to come out of the closet, and in fact, considers it to be "one of the best" moves of her life. "It's painful that I can't openly acknowledge my relationship and have ministerial credentials. But at the same time, this has given us a freedom, and joy and happiness as a couple, to have people know who we are."
She noted a silver lining. With the paperwork finally complete, the couple will soon be foster parents. But, would she raise a child in the faith that has essentially made her an outcast? "That's a really good question," Stroud told the media. She paused, and then said it's a decision they haven't made yet.
Like most relationships, theirs began with innocent flirting and long late-night phone conversations. It was 1996 and Stroud had just graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A longtime Philly resident, she returned home and applied for a job at The Other Side, a progressive Christian magazine based in Germantown. Paige was the publication's circulation director.
Though Stroud was offered the position, she declined, deciding instead to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church. Throughout the process, she volunteered for proofreading duty at the magazine and says she found herself "lingering longer and longer" in Paige's door on the way to the editor's office. The attraction was mutual. "She was awful cute," says Paige.
A year later Stroud was ordained and appointed to a congregation in West Chester. The two kept in touch but didn't start dating until Stroud returned to Philadelphia in 1999. As the new associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG), Stroud invited The Other Side staff to attend a special service. No one showed but Paige sent her a thank-you cardand a dinner invitation.
From the outset, the two knew there would be risks. They discussed the impact a relationship could have on Stroud's clerical career, specifically about the few sentences in the United Methodist Church's Book of Disciplineits compilation of laws, procedures and doctrinethat condemn "the practice of homosexuality," and in turn bar "self-avowed, practicing" gays from ordained ministry.
The sentences were the same ones Stroud herself had wrestled with for most of her adult life. How could a denomination with an "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors" ad campaign discriminate against an entire group of people? Stroud says she struggled to square the church's constitution, which calls for inclusiveness, with its stance on homosexuality throughout seminary, dropping out several times. She says she often considered pursuing ordination in a more welcoming denomination.
That changed during a break from seminary. Stroud was working on an article about gay clergy for LGNY, a gay New York newsweekly that she had founded in 1995. While interviewing four openly gay pastors and rabbis she says she heard an inner voice. "I don't want you to write about this," it said. "I want you to do it."
So, despite deep disagreement with what she considered a policy of discrimination, she did it, vowing to uphold the teaching and discipline of the United Methodist Church, the faith in which she was raised. Single at the time of her ordination, Stroud had not violated church law. But now, she was in love, and that changed everything.
After 15 months of clandestine dating, Stroud and Paige took the leap, celebrating their relationship with a small ceremony attended by friends and family. It took place at Paige's church, Tabernacle United in West Philadelphia, a progressive congregation that supports full participation of gays and lesbians in ministry.
"In a perfect world, we would have had the ceremony at FUMCOG," says Stroud. Yet, to announce the relationship publicly would have outed Stroud to the larger church and set the wheels in motion for a defrocking. At that point, only one woman in the church's history, a New Hampshire pastor, had suffered such a fate, but the denomination's chief legislative body, the General Conference, was standing firm on the issue, repeatedly killing a proposal to soften the church's stance on homosexuality by larger and larger voting margins.
The couple decided to abide, at least for a time, by what equated to a United Methodist "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. While a select few were told about the ceremony, the associate pastor's absence that Sunday was explained to most congregation members through a note in the FUMCOG bulletin: "Beth Stroud is away this weekend attending a family event."
"At that point in our relationship there was only one other option: I could have disclosed the fact that I was a lesbian living with another woman, and then left the church," says Stroud. "We always knew that I wasn't going to try to hide this relationship until I retired, but the beginning of our life as a family needed protection. We needed and deserved a chance to start fresh. I didn't want it to be a big political event. I just wanted it to be a wedding."
While assured some sense of privacy, the next two years were rough on the couple. Paige was coming to grips with being a minister's wife in private and Stroud's "friend" in public. "When I attended FUMCOG, most people wouldn't know who I was," she says. "I would look to Beth to see how I'd be introduced."
And Stroud was learning just how difficult it was to write sermons without the use of personal anecdotes from her married life. "I didn't have the freedom to tell those kinds of stories," she says. Beyond that, she noticed the exorbitant attention she was paying to her scheduling, taking extra measures to avoid disclosing the relationship. "It cut into my self-care," says Stroud. "It was almost like pretending I was single."
The pain was evident, especially to Stroud's parents, Bill and Jamie. Even they, as active members of their church in Bala Cynwyd, had to watch what they said, fearful that they might out their daughter to the wrong person. "That was as close as I came to knowing what it was like to be in the closet," Jamie says.
The time had come for something to give.
At 19, Beth Stroud came out of the closet. A sophomore English major at Bryn Mawr College, she found support and acceptance but still hadn't faced her parents. She knew it would be difficult for them, at least right away, so she spent months compiling informationbooks, pamphlets, phone numbers, support groupsto soften the blow. And then, on a July afternoon in the family's Mt. Airy home, came the sitdown.
While the Strouds had some exposure to gays and lesbians, it was limited to a few friends and colleagues, mostly through Bill's job as assistant managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Neither had ever encountered a gay family member. Beth was the first. They were overwhelmed with emotion.
"More than I would have admitted at the time, my understanding of sexual identity was pretty unexamined and ill-informed," says Bill Stroud. "It didn't seem to fit with the future I might have imagined for my children. My gut reaction to Beth's coming-out was that it would be an enormous handicap for hersomething that would be an obstacle to fulfilling the dreams we had talked about."
"It felt like a bomb had gone off," says Jamie Stroud. "I was really upset." Her mind flashed back 15 years to an incident in which a 5-year-old Beth had bitten an electrical cord and scarred her mouth. Pleading for plastic surgery, Beth told her mother, "I'll never be a beautiful bride without it." There it was. The wedding, the grandchildrengone, she thought. "I loved her," says Jamie. "But I needed time."
And all of a sudden, the churchthe place where she had always found solacewas off-limits. It was three months before Jamie attended another Sunday service at their Bala Cynwyd church and nine more before she spoke with a minister. "I knew that I would just start crying," she says. "I was terrified to talk to our preacher. I had no clue where he stood."
When the Strouds did share their story with a church prayer group it only made matters worse. Some members told them that if their daughter "turned herself over to Jesus then she wouldn't be gay anymore," says Jamie.
Ultimately, the couple would not only reach the point of acceptance but help to form a support network for parents like themselves. And more than a decade after their initial shock, the Strouds would come to watch the same emotional struggle unfold in the hearts and minds of Methodists across the country.
On April 27, 2003, the Rev. Beth Stroud delivered her "coming out" sermon to the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, publicly identifying herself as a lesbian minister in a "covenant relationship" with another woman. It was a calculated risk six months in the making. The previous fall, she began making the rounds with colleagues, congregation members and eventually Bishop Peter D. Weaver, head of the denomination's Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
FUMCOG leaders endorsed the sermon, which isn't surprising given the church's rich history of commitment to social justice and its status as a "reconciling" congregation, part of a small progressive movement within the United Methodist Church that advocates full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in ordained ministry. Founded in 1982, the grassroots advocacy group that would come to be known as the Reconciling Ministries Network now claims nearly 200 congregations and more than 17,000 members across the country, according to the group's Web site. While growing stronger, its voice remains weak in a denomination eight million strong.
Bishop Weaver, as the head of a largely conservative conference, was a different story. Stroud says she was told in a "genuinely caring way" that her sermon could lead to a church trial and ultimately a defrocking. Still, Weaver "never tried to talk me out of it," she says. "He laid out the consequences so that I had a roadmap."
For Stroud, the available choicescelibacy, practicing in another denomination or relinquishing her credentials and serving in a lay capacitywere never really choices at all. She was a dedicated Methodist minister living in a committed relationship with a woman she deeply loved. Stroud stepped out with the firm belief that the church's constitutional calls for social justice and inclusion superceded its laws against homosexuality, and in doing so risked it all.
Still, seeing the makings of a bitter rift, she was more concerned about the reaction of her congregation. She knew most, if not all, would support her. But how would they react? Most members were not raised in the United Methodist tradition, instead attracted to the church for its "faith in action" ministry. Stroud envisioned demonstrations, complete with protesters handcuffing themselves to the church headquarters. "One of my biggest fears was that the congregation would respond in ways that wouldn't be helpful to the church," she says. "I was in a position where I was being protective of the denomination."
Those fears never came to pass. Stroud and Paige received a standing ovation that Easter Sunday. But what seemed like permanent sunshine proved to be just a break in the clouds.
The United Methodist Church, through Bishop Weaver, soon filed a complaint against Stroud, which began a two-and-a-half year legal battle, one that would touch down in Pughtown, Pa., for a two-day church trial, then in Baltimore for an appeals hearing, all before ending last month in Houston at a session of the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court.
In 18 months, Stroud was defrocked (for violating the church's ban on practicing gay clergy), reinstated (on procedural and legal errors made by the church) and finally removed from ordained ministry. Despite all this, she has vowed to remain in the Methodist fold. Just don't suggest she swap denominations. Throughout her ordeal, Stroud has always referred to her case as a "teaching moment" for the larger church, a form of civil disobedience aimed at correcting social injustice in an institution that has been historically slow to change. Deeply devoted to her faith, which she traces back to her childhood in rural Arkansas, Stroud says she identifies with other gay and lesbian Methodists who insist "it's our church too."
"Call me crazy, but to me choosing a religion or a faith is not the equivalent of going to Burger King because you didn't like the service at McDonald's," says Stroud. "If I changed denominations, I'd be leaving not for reasons of theology or polity but only because of my sexual orientation. For me, staying is about the relationships I've built. I care very deeply about the people of the United Methodist Church. I like to be a part of changing minds. The minute I leave, a big part of the conversation and the dialogue ends. I don't want to tell anyone what to believe. I only hope that my case gives people pause and a chance to ask themselves, 'Is this really logical? Does this make sense?' I hope it helps people ask questions."
For others, including lifelong Methodists like Stroud's parents, the case has served only to alienate. "Watching Beth's path to becoming a Methodist minister was like watching an impending train wreck in very slow motion," says Bill. "I could see the way the church was going."
Both Bill and Jamie say they have recently considered leaving the church for another denomination. "Whether I stick around depends on whether I honestly think there's hope for change," says Bill. "Ultimately, I think the larger society will probably drag the church kicking and screaming behind it."
Jamie takes issue with what she sees as the larger church's unwillingness to even raise the issue. In many congregations across the country, homosexuality remains a taboo topic. "Churches can be the scariest places to go," says Jamie. A founding member of an outreach group that works with parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children, Jamie says many Methodists are still gripped by fear when confronted with the issue. "That's where the church is really hurting," she says. "We need to provide the support so that their children are not treated like second-class citizens."
For now, the debate over gays and the pulpit continues to roil mainline Protestant denominations. The United Methodist Church, sensitive to recent press coverage, objects to Stroud's charge of discrimination. "This was never about discrimination," says the Rev. Thomas Hall, a Methodist pastor and lead prosecutor in the Stroud case. "That's a blatant untruth. This has always been about meeting the minimum standard requirements we've vowed to keep. It's not about performance or one's ability to lead the flock."
At issue, he says, was the integrity of the Book of Discipline. A Stroud victory would have undercut the denomination's legislative process and the basic authority of its guiding rulebook. "Either the Discipline has teeth or it doesn't," says Hall. "You can't overstep the bounds and then expect them to come out and fit you."
Asked how the church reconciles its constitutional promise of inclusion with its stance on homosexuality, Hall says, "It's like playing with apples and oranges. Everybody is of sacred worth. Not everyone meets the requirements for ordained ministry."
"American denominational Christianity has always been slow about coming to speech on important social issues."
For example, he says, the Methodist Church enforced a policy of racial segregation until the late 1960s, when it began accepting blacks into the fold and adopted its "United" handle.
Despite a growing movement of "reconciling" congregations, the larger church is standing its ground. As the denomination's power base shifts south, the General Conferencethe church's chief legislative bodyis growing more conservative, says Taussig. "There won't be much progress in the near future. The United Methodist Church is in a holding pattern. The progressive movement will continue, but the power struggle shows no sign of resolving the issue."
In fact, the General Conference has formally rejected the idea that there is a "lack of common mind" on the issue of homosexuality within the church in its last four sessions. The conservative bloc that holds sway in the church has prompted a number of liberal congregations to promote a campaign of "active resistance," says Taussig, whose Chestnut Hill church supported Stroud.
Among the options, he says, are founding an alternate clerical board to ordain gays and lesbians outside the official United Methodist process, and breaking from conservative conferences to join more progressive ones like those in New York and New England. "It's time for the rest of us to take risks and to say it matters," says Taussig, also author of the upcoming book Grassroots Progressive Christianity.
Beth Stroud is cleaning house, literally. Boxes of old books, along with other castoffs, sit on the front porch of the Germantown home she shares with Paige. Inside, more boxes. Hardwood floors and high ceilings with little in between. Couch, chair, coffee table, television.
The couple is making room. After three years, they're finally going to be parents, co-mothers of a foster child who could arrive at any moment. Stroud dispenses some biblical humor: "We know neither the day nor the hour." It's been a week since the couple completed the paperwork and the talk quickly turns to cribs and playpens.
With the help of a professional organizer and a crew of close friends, their stately stone row home received an extreme makeover. Six years of clutter gave way to feng shui. A second-floor study became a nursery. Curled into a cozy rocker, her dog Boo at her feet, Stroud admits they may have gone overboard. "We're sitting in a room full of thrift-store furniture and we're concerned about the flow of chi," she says.
All of this has been a long time coming. The couple started the orientation process in 2002, six months before Stroud came out as a lesbian to her congregation. A year later they opened their home to a social worker who inspected everything from kitchen cupboards to smoke detectors. Then came six months of training, the ins and outs of parenting a foster child. "It was great," says Paige. "We don't know how heterosexual people do it."
And now, maternity leave is just a phone call away. On the short list for placement, the couple is waiting patiently. "We've had good practice with uncertainty," says Paige.