Snakes handle a church

Here's a quick way to take the theological pulse of churchgoers. Imagine you're attending an urban parish with a reputation for liberal theology and political activism. Your new senior pastor begins the Lord's Prayer with "Our Mother and Father in heaven," baptizes children in the name of "the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer," attends an anti-war rally in Washington and offers unequivocal support when the associate pastor announces from the pulpit that she is a lesbian. Is your senior pastor a traditionalist who could imperil the progressive future of your church?

Several members of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa., concluded that about the Rev. Fred Day, who in 2001 became the beleaguered successor to the Rev. Ted Loder. Loder led FUMCOG -- the acronym sounds like something out of C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, but that's what members call it -- from 1962 to January 30, 2000, which meant almost certain trouble for any successor.

FUMCOG is the subject of The Congregation, a documentary by Alan and Susan Raymond that premiered Wednesday night on PBS. Many of the reports and reviews on The Congregation focus on the coming out sermon of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, and her subsequent defrocking by a court of the United Methodist Church.

No report I've seen explores the question of what made Day so unbearably traditionalist.

The New York Times provides the most amusing detail about what the parent PBS channel sought from the filmmakers:

WETA, the Washington PBS station, had offered the Raymonds the topic, and it did not want a congregation "on some new fringe, not a born-again church in a movie theater, not a snake-charming one," said Dalton Delan, WETA's chief programming officer. "Mainstream" was the mandate.

The filmmakers reinforce that definition of "mainstream" in a Q&A posted on the film's website:

We decided to focus on a mainline Protestant church because of the historic importance of Protestant churches in American life.

At the same time, recent studies of religion in America have emphasized the decline of the Protestant establishment and with it a turning away from the social causes which these churches have long championed. The rise of fundamentalist religions has increasingly drawn away younger members from mainline Protestant churches with an increasing emphasis on personal seeking and worship rather than social justice. Finally one of the greatest challenges facing congregations today is that of finding effective ministers -- which is one of the themes of our film.

The most detailed criticism of Day comes from one man, left unidentified, who complains that the pastor offered a "15-minute prayer" after his sermon for Martin Luther King Day. Blasphemy! During a committee meeting, Day mentions that a young woman believes he quotes too much Scripture during FUMCOG's worship services, and that she has appreciated how one may attend the church without having to believe in God.

There are vague complaints about changes in the church's liturgy, but it never becomes clear what the liturgy was before Day's arrival. FUMCOG also offers a jazz service, so it's difficult to perceive Day as a liturgical crank.

The ironies of this sad tale were not lost on David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, who wrote on Wednesday:

The church board calls in consultants, and what the "experts" do to Day through a process they call "the talking cure" is downright brutal. It is more like public humiliation with far too many members of the congregation willing to use the new minister as a scapegoat for their own failure to find a way to serve God -- and deal with mammon.

It's also worth mentioning that several FUMCOG members speak in Day's defense. The most eloquent woman says she believes Day's leadership style actually is more collaborative than Loder's.

Day spends most of the documentary in a mode so unguarded and non-defensive that he sounds more like a Rogerian counselor than a pastor who has been targeted for a purge. By film's end, he confesses that he has reached a point of exhaustion after three years of trying to lead a divided congregation. He declines an opportunity for reappointment at FUMCOG.

In another Q&A on the film's website, Day retains his gracious tone:

Man, there are people in Haiti that don't have a house right now, there are people in Iraq that are dying of car bombings, and my stuff pales in comparison. And it's just about being a servant and that doesn't mean it's easy, but I think, you know, there's some perspective to again recognize that it's not about me, it's more about the church, and the church finding a way to be faithful and catch a vision and move into the future.

"It's not about me": Such a radical, perhaps even threatening, notion in a congregation's life.

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