Church on Trial? A Mother’s Perspective
by Carolyn Paige
I am the mother of two wonderful daughters — one a daughter by birth, Chris Paige, and a second daughter by commitment, Chris’s partner Beth Stroud. “Daughter” seems a better way to express my relationship with Beth than “daughter-in-law,” especially after this past election, because there is little in our laws that honors the commitments Chris and Beth have made to each other. I love them both and am so very proud of them.
Beth is a United Methodist minister. She had been serving as associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, PA since 1999. You may have read or watched news reports about her December 2004 church trial in which she faced charges for being in a covenant relationship with Chris. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Beth was on trial simply because she and Chris loved each other and had chosen each other as life partners.
As one who walked through that trial with Beth and Chris, I want to share some of my thoughts and behind-the-scenes observations. (If what I write seems like random ramblings, you can believe I wrote it. My family knows that is how I talk, too!)
My husband, Ron, and I live in Lansing, Michigan. On the last day of November 2004, we traveled by car to Philadelphia so that we could be present for the opening of the trial. We wanted to show our support for Chris and Beth.
And I needed to be there for me. I had been in Philadelphia when Beth preached her coming-out sermon in April 2003. No one could have adequately described that experience to me or really shared the emotional impact of being in the presence of such a supportive congregation as Beth’s. I knew this trial would have an emotional impact that would be impossible to fully feel from a distance or experience from second-hand descriptions. I had to be there.
Beth’s parents, Bill and Jamie, were there, too. We had met them while Chris and Beth were dating, and they have become dear friends, sharing our love and support for our daughters. Ron and I gathered with them and other family members at a bed & breakfast in Exton, about 15 minutes from the trial site. We deliberately chose something smaller than a national hotel chain so that we could be family together and be separate from any protest groups that might also be gathering.
Wednesday morning, December 1, we four parents drove together to Camp Innabah, a United Methodist summer camp near Pottstown, PA, where the trial would be held. The camp provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the jury pool, the trial participants, and Chris and Beth’s families. That location was ideal. Beth had attended camp there, worked there, and was on the board of directors. It was a familiar and comfortable place for her.
None of the parents knew what to expect, so we arrived early, about 7 a.m., unsure of where to go. The camp dining room was the first building we came to. It is the same building where the jury pool waited to learn who would be chosen to serve. I felt uncomfortable at first sharing the lounge area in front of the fireplace with them. We didn’t talk about the trial, but I knew why they were there. They could see from my nametag who I was: “My name is Carolyn, Beth is my daughter.” It helped to remind myself, “They are family members, members of Christ’s body, not adversaries.”
Camp staff shuttled jurors and family members up the hill to the camp gymnasium, which served as the courtroom. When it wasn’t raining, we walked. Chris and Beth walked, too. Cameras clicked whenever they came up the hill because the press was out in force. Along with Alan and Susan Raymond, who were producing the PBS documentary “The Congregation,” there were reporters from CNN, the Associated Press, United Methodist Church news, local newspapers and TV stations. Whenever we came out of the gym, there were likely to be six TV vans, that many video cameras, and a dozen microphones. The press seemed confounded by Beth’s attitude; they could not understand her not being angry and belligerent.
When I got to the gym, I felt like a privileged VIP because I didn’t have to wait in line to get a ticket. Some hopeful observers had arrived as early as 5 a.m. and waited in the rain to get one of the limited number of admission tickets. My admission ticket was brought to me at breakfast. Family members also had a section of seats reserved just behind Beth, so I literally had a front row seat! And one time, after a break, they delayed closing the doors because we mothers were still waiting in the long bathroom line. Really VIP!
The number of uniformed police officers showed that we were not the only ones concerned about demonstrations. The camp is isolated from the big city, and protesters like those outside the 2003 WOW1 conference would not have easy access. Still, I was relieved to learn that only groups that were supportive were gathering. Beth’s own congregation. FUMCOG (the acronym that members fondly used in speaking about the First United Methodist Church Of Germantown) and Chris’s congregation, Tabernacle United, were out in force. I was happy to see PFLAG2 and Soulforce3 signs.
The police may have been as concerned about our supportive groups as about the possible appearance of anti-gay protestors. But Chris and Beth were very clear in pre-trial conversations that only non-adversarial action was wanted. Beth had asked that worship and prayer services be held before and during the trial. Chris’s pastor, Patricia, officiated at one of the most meaningful communion services I’ve ever attended. A woman I met there, whose own Baptist congregation had been disenfranchised because they affirmed homosexuals, had driven to Philadelphia from Ohio. We sobbed together with grief that our denominations have not found a wholesome sexual ethic that includes both heterosexuals and homosexuals. It overwhelms me to know how deep is the support, to know how many will travel hundreds of miles to offer their love and to share the pain.
Testimony started Wednesday afternoon. Bishop Weaver, who brought the charges, testified that all procedures had been followed, counseling had been given, and opportunity to move to another denomination had been offered. He also testified that Beth is a good minister and that she is called of God. Beth joked later, “With ‘enemies’ like that, who needs friends?” Actually, Beth wants it known that the Bishop is not her enemy; nor is the United Methodist Church her enemy. Our disagreements over the role of gays and lesbians in our faith communities are disagreements within a family.
Throughout the trial, Beth remained pastoral with her congregation who were there showing support. She was pastoral with the jury after the penalty phase when she went up to each one and shook hands or gave a hug. She was pastoral with the whole denomination when she acknowledged that either verdict would be painful. Because of her loving attitude, even though this was a trial, it was respectful and even reverent.
For me, various emotions kept recurring during the trial. The first was tremendous parental pride. I was so impressed with how articulate both Chris and Beth were. They behaved with such grace and dignity, calmly and patiently answering reporters’ questions. They lovingly supported those sharing their pain and were mutually supportive of one another.
Another emotion I repeatedly felt was sadness. Many in our church families shared the pain of this trial. I was honored to wear a rainbow stole that had been worn by an observer at Rev. Karen T. Dammann’s trial earlier in the year. Many of the camp staff and other church staff, while upholding the required neutrality, were privately supportive. I was drawn to a woman who worked in the church. She could not show her support publicly. She could not express the pain she felt publicly either. I could. And so I cried for her.
I saw sadness, too, when I watched the jury as they listened to such positive testimony about Beth’s ministry and listened to Beth herself. The trial instructions would not allow them to follow their own convictions. The 7-6 penalty decision to strip Beth of her ministerial credentials shows they were not of one mind. One juror called Beth the weekend after the trial to ask how he could help get the Book of Discipline changed.
And, of course, I was sad for Beth and Chris. Knowing the likely outcome of an action doesn’t make that outcome less painful. The pain of exclusion and the discrimination known by homosexuals is also shared by their family members who watch. I feel deep sadness when the church rejects my daughter and her gifts for ministry.
An unexpected emotion, however, was and is happiness. I am happy to know that Beth and Chris are helping moderates reconsider their position on the role of gays and lesbians in our faith communities. The night of the verdict, both families and the legal defense team all went out for a late dinner. It really was a celebration and more than just celebrating because the trial was over. The evening was very good spirited and joyful. One of the non-family guests said, ” If this is how you are when losing, what must winning be like?” I am happy knowing that Chris and Beth are OK. They picked a one word message for their Christmas card: REJOICE!
I am still hopeful that there will be change. Hope is sometimes hard for me to keep alive now that I’ve returned home after the trial. Although the trial was on the newspaper front page and on the 6 o’clock TV evening news in Philadelphia and was prominently featured in media throughout the U.S,, it received only one small column back home in the Lansing State Journal. And, it looks like my own congregation, which was considering becoming a More Light Presbyterian congregation, will not do so after all. The discussions I’ve heard about it over the past two months are discouraging.
We need more congregations like Beth’s, which became a United Methodist Reconciling Congregation in 1989 and thus its members were prepared to support Beth. We need to nurture and grow congregations like that. God’s call to ministry is not only to heterosexuals. Others besides Beth have answered, and the church needs the talents and gifts that the Spirit of God has bestowed on them. Our churches need to know that our faith family already includes homosexuals, often worshiping and ministering in silent distress.
Beth has decided to appeal. Bishop Yeakel, the presiding officer (the judge at the trial), ruled that no testimony could be presented about the rightness or wrongness of the charge itself, nor could any testimony be presented to show that the section being used to bring the charges was in conflict with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. To me, it was clearly an unfair trial. If it had been a civil trial, the verdict would have been thrown out.
I find that it is difficult sometimes to give to Chris and Beth what they most need from us: just to be their family. After they give multiple press conferences, answer countless reporter questions, and give numerous TV and radio interviews, they need time and space to not talk about the trial or the appeal process. Sometimes that means we parents are the last to know. They may be sure they have talked about it with us, too, so are surprised to find we didn’t know some fact or plan. Sometimes I learned more about their thoughts by reading the newspaper, or their website, or the PBS web pages for “The Congregation” than from direct conversation with them.
But that’s OK. They have confidence that both families support them. They need us to simply be family. They need a place where the spotlight can be turned off. I observed the loving way Chris carefully changed conversation topics on New Years’ day when she knew Beth just needed time away from trial and appeal questions.
Beth is so clear in saying that the United Methodist Church is her family. Hopefully we all can expand our response to the question raised by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott in the title of their book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and answer it this way: “Yes, of course, the gay or lesbian person is my neighbor — and also a part of my church family.” I am deeply grateful that my own family has taught me that.
I regret the outcome of the trial but do not regret the witness. I know that the trial and the events surrounding it have made at least some people think about gays and lesbians in a new way and to recognize their importance as members of God’s family, called to serve Christ. Perhaps some people will also come to view relationships like that of Chris and Beth in a new light as well. For these reasons, I refuse to give into despair and instead have hope that attitudes in our churches, regardless of denominational affiliation, will change. In many ways, it is the church that is on trial.
- Witness Our Welcome (WOW) is the name of an ecumenical gathering of affirming, accepting, and reconciling churches which have declared their welcome to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons.
- PFLAG is the acronym for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a large national organization that supports and advocates for lesbians and gays and those who love them and is working to increase understanding about sexual orientation and end discrimination in society.
- Soulforce is self-described as “an interfaith movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people.” It is based on the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
— Carolyn Paige
Carolyn Paige served on the EEWC Council as one of our southeastern representatives before her move to Michigan. Carolyn writes: “It was Chris who introduced me to EEWC after she represented The Other Side magazine (for which she worked as publisher) at the 1996 conference in Norfolk. I’ve attended all conferences since but one. I work as a computer database analyst. I like to read, travel, garden and sew/quilt. And, I love my family.”
© 2005 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 28 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2005