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Church people rallied around their minister. Photo: WETA. Church people rallied around their minister. (Photo: WETA.)

Their camera rolls and the closet door opens once again

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

A church struggles to define its identity and its pastor opts to reveal hers in the latest production by celebrated video verite team Alan and Susan Raymond.

The Congregation gives a fly-on-the-wall view of the inner workings of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa.

The Raymonds, winners of Oscar, Emmy and Peabody awards for the 1973 groundbreaker An American Family, about the Loud family, the 2002 follow-up after Lance Loud's death and I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School, among other lauded docs, planned the new project to explore a year in the life of a Protestant church. The two-hour program is scheduled to air on PBS on Dec. 29.

Jim Corbley and Dalton Delan, execs at presenting station WETA in Washington, D.C., conceived the profile of a Protestant congregation and tapped the Raymonds for it because "it suited them perfectly," Delan says. The doc received funding from CPB, PBS and the Lilly Endowment Inc..

Alan Raymond notes that since mainstream Protestant churches often create the opportunity for their members to engage in social activism, they are generally examined in relation to a specific issue — hunger or homelessness, for example — rather than simply as institutions. He says he wanted to address the question, "Where is the Protestant church today?" as it struggles to appeal to young people and as many churches move from their urban origins to the suburbs.

Adds Susan Raymond: "Programs tend to report on the religious fringes rather than on the mainstream. We wanted to take a look at one church and see how Protestant churches are still relevant."

However, "we got more than we bargained for," says Delan, WETA's executive producer on the project.

As the Raymonds' cameras rolled, an internal struggle over the acceptance of new head pastor Fred Day split the church and led to his resignation — his term officially ends in July 2005. And nine months into production, assistant pastor Elizabeth Stroud revealed to the congregation that she is a lesbian in a committed relationship, jeopardizing her future as a Methodist minister.

The United Methodist Church forbids gay pastors, and Stroud awaits a Dec. 1 clergy trial to determine if she is guilty of "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching," according to the church's website. If found guilty, she could lose her credentials as an ordained minister. [She did, by a 7-6 vote.] The Congregation will include footage from Stroud's trial.

The Raymonds "do not look for controversy," Delan says, "but it does seem to find them."

An American Family, named by TV Guide as one of the 50 greatest shows in history, was known for introducing the nation to Lance Loud, the first openly gay person on American television. Some critics also criticized the series' intensive examination of the Loud family for contributing to the dissolution of the marriage of parents Bill and Pat Loud.
"We didn't cause the Louds to divorce and we didn't make Lance gay," Alan says. "But we've dealt with these types of charges in the past."

The Raymonds say they chose the more than 200-year-old Germantown church — FUMCOG, as it's called by the congregation — in part because it had recently replaced its longtime minister. As members adapted to the new worship leader, Alan says, they would have to evaluate and define the church through deciding "what they would hold on to" from its liturgical past.

Indeed, one of the striking aspects of The Congregation is that disagreements over Day's traditional style of worship cause a much bigger stir than Stroud's revelation. While the socially liberal and active church mostly greeted Stroud's announcement with open arms and congratulation for her bravery and openness, Day's reliance on a traditional liturgical style was hard for some members to take. The doc's squirmiest moments come as Day sits in silence as an outside mediator rattles off members' complaints about him.

While the Raymonds anticipated the conflict with the new pastor, Stroud's revelation was unexpected. The producers say they offered to keep the plotline out of the doc but Stroud felt it was important.

They acknowledge (and hope) the film will present Stroud's conflict in a sympathetic light but don't think she consciously timed her announcement to benefit from the film's exposure. "I'd like to think she didn't base the decision to risk her entire ministry on the fact that film crew had showed up," Alan says. Stroud did not return calls from Current.

The Congregation follows the arc of Stroud's decision from her early struggles to assess its ramifications through her triumphant "coming out" sermon to later meetings with Philadelphia's bishop, where she announces her decision to fight any sanction by the church hierarchy.

Delan takes pains to assert that The Congregation doesn't "paint a picture of a church in decline." But it does show turmoil. Alan Raymond says the members "are proud of their church" and were supportive of the project, but "probably would have preferred it be filmed during a different, less difficult period." None of the congregation's members has seen the doc.

Alan says that in some ways, reality TV's semi-scripted buffoonery and gross-out indignities have made it tougher to do the Raymonds' kind of actual reality-based docs. "When you seek permission to film a project, the first question now is 'Is this going to be a reality TV show?' "

When reality TV first came to the networks, Susan says she was "outraged" but now regards it with something approaching amusement. "These producers think, 'Let's stack the deck with crazy families and zany characters to make sure something happens.' And I just want to laugh in their faces," she says. "Because patience and fortitude are all you need."

WETA will augment the production with a discussion guide to be sent to stations and religious organizations, says Anne Harrington, WETA's manager of interactive media and outreach.

To broaden the reach of the project, a station video crew also crisscrossed the country conducting interviews with congregants and leaders of a variety of faiths about issues related to youth engagement, community outreach and interfaith cooperation.

Editors condensed more than 40 hours of footage into a 45-minute tape available for requesting stations to use in outreach efforts — it hasn't been cleared for broadcast. More of the footage will land on www.pbs.org/ thecongregation, which launches early in December, Harrington says.

Web page posted Dec. 5, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

An American Family aired on PBS in 1973 and repeated in 1990.

PBS version of 'reality TV' distills drama from real life, 2001.

One last visit with Lance Loud, 2002. The original 1973 series was produced by Craig Gilbert and filmed by the Raymonds.

LINKS

PBS's site for the documentary.

Alan & Susan Raymond's production company, Video Verite LLC. Extensive materials on The Congregation are posted and more are planned.

The battle against pro-gay forces is America's defining moment, says the head of the Traditional Values Coalition, reports the Christian Post.

A retired bishop undercut Stroud's defense by excluding testimony that the charges violated church policy, reported a major gay newspaper, The Advocate.

First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa.

Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of UMC.

Stroud holds out hope for the Methodists, reports the official United Methodist News Service, Dec. 3. [More coverage.]

By judging Stroud with cultural prejudices, the church has sinned, says Reconciling Ministries Network.

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