Pictured #1 Beth Stroud heads for trial. #2 Chris Paige and Beth Stroud (right) head to trial. #3 The two inside the church. Photos by Mike DuBose/United Methodist News Service
Two days before a PBS documentary on the trials facing her Philadelphia neighborhood congregation was set to air nationwide, lesbian Methodist minister Beth Stroud announced her decision to appeal a Dec. 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 over a year readying for the trial, the minister acknowledges that she had no idea how exhausting the ordeal would prove.
Basically a private person, she was unprepared to discover 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 Bishop Joseph Yeakel, the presiding judge at the trial. Yeakel 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 greater Constitution of the United Methodist Church.
'I believe that the provisions of the Discipline that were citied in the charge are superceded by others that say that the Methodist Church abhors discrimination of all kinds and calls upon us to be inclusive of all peoples,' Stroud explained in a post-decision phone interview. 'Our discipline says that gay and lesbian people are people of sacred worth in the eyes of God.'
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 explains. '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 processed into the sanctuary without her vestments, she felt the pain of her 'very significant loss.'
'I felt similar on Christmas eve,' she revealed. 'Just before leading the service for children ages 2-6, 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 150 days.
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,' says Stroud, '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.'