On December 2, 2004, Rev. Beth Stroud, a Philadelphia area minister, was defrocked by the United Methodist Church on the grounds that she is a practicing lesbian. Rev. Stroud has since decided to appeal the defrocking, and I applaud her bravery.
After all, isn’t Christianity supposed to be about Jesus’ message of tolerance, acceptance, loving thy neighbor and forgiving one’s sins?
Some so-called Christians have defended Stroud’s removal by quoting passages from the Bible that condemn homosexuality. Following that logic, however, we should still be keeping slaves, as endorsed in Leviticus 25:44, and executing anyone who works on the Sabbath, as dictated in Exodus 35:2.
As times change, our social and cultural institutions evolve as well. These include our established religious rules and practices. Prior to changes that took place in the 1960s and thereafter, many of our churches were racially segregated, rules regarding divorce and remarriage within many denominations were strict and impractical, and the Catholic Church and some other Christian sects required women to cover their heads in church.
Today, women serve as pastors at many churches, worshippers can attend services dressed in casual attire, and most clergy will not think twice about officiating at a biracial wedding ceremony. Only the most narrow-minded of conservatives would deny that these changes have made the world a nicer place and made church life more inviting.
Consider, too, what it means to be a Christian. At least in theory, people identify themselves as Christians because they subscribe to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
This is the same Jesus who taught us to love our neighbors (not only the white, male, heterosexual, flag-waving, Christian ones), and that we should not judge others lest we be judged.
This is the same Jesus who made an example of himself by dining with sinners, befriending a prostitute, and identifying with “the least of these.”
Who, therefore, can accept a policy of bigotry, intolerance, and double standards, and still call himself a Christian?
A church certainly has every right to set its own internal standards and define the rules that will govern its members. However, this is the 21st century, and a church cannot remain strong in today’s society, nor capture the imagination of the next generation, if it clings to repressive, outmoded customs, especially when those practices fly in the face of the true meaning of Christianity.
The fact that the decision to defrock Stroud resulted from a very close vote (7-6) suggests that the United Methodist Church may be ready to take a step forward towards greater tolerance, and to make it official.
At a press conference following the decision to remove Stroud from the ministry, Rev. Fred Day of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown shared a remark allegedly made to him by presiding Judge Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel: “The day will come when the church will apologize to Beth for this decision.”
I look forward to the day when we hear that apology. The United Methodist Church, and society at large, will be better for it.
In the meantime, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.