Beth Stroud, Philadelphia pastor, former LGNY editor, uncertain about appeal
Stroud was charged with violating Paragraph 2702.1(b) of the 2000 Book of
Discipline by living as “a self-avowed practicing homosexual in a monogamous, committed relationship… while in the ordained ministry.”
Though Stroud can no longer wear the insignia of the ordained ministry, perform weddings, consecrate communion or baptize congregants, she continues as associate pastor of the church in northwest Philadelphia whose long history of social justice work has frequently led its congregants to take to the streets.
Charges against Stroud were based on four bodies of evidence. These included an April 27, 2003 sermon in which she credited Chris Paige, with whom she has now lived for four years, as embodying “grace and love and discipleship for me.”
“Because of my relationship with her,” said Stroud in her sermon, “I am a better, more faithful Christian. I am deeply grateful to her for the daily practice in loving and being loved and forgiving and being forgiven that constantly deepen who I am as a person of faith.”
Retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, who presided over the two-day trial, refused to allow Stroud’s defense to cite a March 2004 Methodist decision which found open lesbian minister Rev. Karen Dammann of Seattle not guilty of engaging in “practices incompatible with Christian teachings.” Nor did the court grant Stroud the opportunity to challenge the Book of Discipline on the grounds that it violates the Christian principles of the Bible and the constitution of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
She was instead given 30 days to appeal.
Five days after the verdict, Beth granted her first post-trial telephone interview with the gay press on a day filled with ministerial duties.
Asked if she has since decided to appeal, Stroud explained that she is torn.
“I have to ask myself, if I should appeal and win, if that would be healthy for the church,” Stroud said. “Would it further harden positions and disrupt the opportunity that may now exist for people to hear each other and change their perspectives?”
Stroud talked in detail about how thinking within the Germantown congregation has evolved.
“This congregation decided roughly 15 years ago to become a reconciling congregation that’s fully inclusive of gay and lesbian people in all aspects of its life and ministry,” she explained. “When we made that decision, the church went through a very long process where it was important that everyone be heard and everyone have a chance to speak. As a result, some of my strongest supporters in the congregation are people who then had a different perspective on homosexuality than they have now. I would like my brothers and sisters throughout the UMC to have the same opportunity for conversion and transformation on this issue that members of my congregation had.
“There are still a lot of people in our country, including church ministers, who don’t realize that they’ve ever met a gay person,” Stroud continued. “In the same way that when I came out to my family, the issue of homosexuality became far more personal for them and they became much more actively supportive, loving and caring, it is my hope that some of the same thing may happen in the church.”
Stroud acknowledged, however, that as many as two-thirds of UMC members worldwide still believe that the rule barring openly gay or lesbian people from the ministry is correct.
When asked how much her decision about filing an appeal would be based on what is healthy for Beth Stroud, she laughed.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got to look at that too,” she said. “I’m exhausted and overwhelmed by the enormous changes that have taken place in my life in the past seven days. I’m getting some sleep, but I’m not fully caught up. I really haven’t had enough time to sit down and absorb what all of this means.”
Stroud is hardly a stranger to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activism. In her 20s, she served in 1995 as founding editor of LGNY, whose principals went on to launch Gay City News in 2002. While interviewing four New York pastors and rabbis for an LGNY story about out gay and lesbian spiritual leaders, Stroud said she heard an inner voice telling her, “I don’t want you to write about this. I want you to do it.” That voice led her to become a minister and later to come out.
“I felt that in my silence, I was not fully living out what I believed,” she said. “I believe that God made all people with all kinds of colors and shapes and sizes and all kinds of sexual orientations. I believe that God blesses all kinds of loving families.
“I felt I needed to take this stand as a Christian, even knowing that it might cost me my credentials. I needed to tell the truth about my life, my faith, and the way I had experienced God in my life in my relationship with my partner as a lesbian faithful to God.”
Stroud met Paige in Philadelphia in 1996 while both worked for a small progressive Christian magazine. They began dating a year later, right after Stroud was ordained. The moving van arrived a week after their October 2000 commitment ceremony.
“I was in a place in my life where if I was going to merge pots and pans and furniture, and have my daily life intertwined with the daily life of another person,” Stroud recalled. “I wanted a partner who was willing to stand up in front of God and all my friends and say ‘I’m gonna stay with you.’”
In the wake of the charges brought against Stroud, the couple received far greater support than they anticipated. Congregation members started a legal defense fund, and promised Stroud that she could continue to work at the church regardless of the trial’s outcome. At least three attorneys from the congregation contributed countless hours of pro bono legal services. Congregants also showered the couple with homemade food, enabling them to focus their energies on the ordeal ahead.
Regardless of her ultimate decision to appeal, Stroud holds to a larger vision.
“It’s important for us to practice listening and compassion and start small where we are,” she said. “If you want someone else to put themselves in your shoes, you have to be willing a little bit to put yourself in theirs. If you want someone to hear you, you have to be willing to hear them.
“I hope that through what I’ve already done, there may be some gay and lesbian people who, if they can’t at this time feel the affirmation and love of the United Methodist Church, can through what I and my congregation have done at least see and hear that there are communities that really believe in justice for all people and are willing to walk the walk.”