May 22, 2024 | John W. Coleman

WILDWOOD, NJ, May 21, 2024 – On its final day, May 3, The United Methodist Church’s momentous 2020/2024 General Conference voted to allow for the reinstatement of clergy who were previously defrocked due to their sexual identity. On the first evening of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, May 21, a closed session of about 200 ordained clergy voted overwhelmingly to readmit former clergywoman Beth Stroud as a full member of its body.

The Rev. Stroud’s ministerial orders as an elder were removed in 2004 after a trial in which she admitted to being in a committed relationship with another woman. She was reinstated and welcomed back with loud applause, hymn singing and tearful hugs by her fellow clergy after their votes of approval far exceeded the required two-thirds majority.

Following that decision, friends ushered her into the meeting room, where she was speechless and overcome with emotion. She was given a red clergy stole and later joined her robed colleagues in their procession onto the annual conference floor at Wildwoods Convention Center for their opening ordination and commissioning worship service.

“I’m deeply grateful for the discernment of the clergy of Eastern Pennsylvania,” said Bishop John Schol, who leads both the Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey annual conferences, “and I’m grateful that the church has opened up to LGBTQ persons.”

Bishop voices ‘deep admiration’ for Stroud

Schol, who retires in August, earlier expressed deep admiration for Stroud, who served as his associate pastor at West Chester United Methodist Church when she completed seminary more than two decades ago. She then served briefly at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG), in Philadelphia, before she was defrocked. Current and former pastors of the congregation were among the many who embraced her after the vote.

“I couldn’t be prouder as your bishop, and you couldn’t have given me a better gift as I retire,” Schol told the clergy gathering before inviting Stroud to rejoin her colleagues in the clergy session. 

“I was so disoriented when I came in,” Stroud said in a later interview. “For a while, I couldn’t tell where the front of the room was, where I was, where I needed to go… The bishop asked me if I wanted to say anything, and I said I couldn’t.” More hugs greeted her long after the session ended.

During the evening worship service, after clergy members were ordained, commissioned and presented to the annual conference, Schol drew wide applause when he announced Stroud’s reinstatement and presented her to the full assembly.

Later, after he invited anyone interested in pursuing ministry to come forward, Schol suddenly knelt before Stroud at the stage front. As the moved congregation sang conference musician Mark Miller’s hymn “Child of God,” she laid her hands on his shoulders and quietly prayed for him.  

During the Eastern PA Annual Conference Service of Commissioning and Ordination, May 21, Bishop John Schol kneels before the Rev. Beth Stroud as she prays for him following her reinstatement as a full clergy member of the conference.  ©Shari DeAngelo photo

Worshipers ‘Widen the Circle’

The inspiration of that moment intensified when worshipers, numbering nearly 500, then began to sing Miller‘s arrangement of “Draw the Circle Wide,” which has become an unofficial anthem of the movement to extend full ministry, membership and marital rights to LGBTQ+ members. Led by Miller and his band, most of the singing congregants then began moving out from their chairs to the edges of the spacious hall. They gradually encircled the room facing one another, with many holding hands as they sang the chorus several times.

After leaving ordained ministry in 2004 and then briefly serving her very supportive FUMCOG congregation as a hired lay ministerial aide, Irene Elizabeth Stroud moved to New Jersey and earned more academic degrees, including her PhD in Religion at Princeton University in 2018.

She has been a lay member of Turning Point United Methodist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and has taught and lectured at Princeton and other colleges. She was recently hired to teach History of Religion at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, one of the denomination’s 13 affiliated seminaries. She will join the faculty there this summer.