Film Critics Unanimous: PBS So-called Documentary of Convicted Lesbian "Pastor" Confuses Viewers
Lesbian star exposed as unrepentant habitual liar
By David Zurawik, Sun Television Critic
December 29, 2004
A pastor on the ropes, rapidly losing confidence in his ability to preach. An associate pastor who comes out of the closet and announces that she's been living in a lesbian relationship -- an action that violates church law. And a financially strapped congregation so bitterly divided and confused by its changing circumstances that it uses money it needs to fix its leaking roof to hire consultants to help make sense of the muddle.
Those are the major players in Congregation, an eye-opening backstage documentary by Oscar-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond premiering tonight on PBS. While time spent at church, synagogue or mosque is often thought of as a respite from the enormous change and uncertainty engulfing the other major institutions of school, work and family, that is definitely not the story here. Congregation is the gripping saga of a church desperately struggling to adapt to 21st-century American life -- and, in the process, not doing so well by some of its members.
The congregation on which the Raymonds trained their cameras from 2002 to 2004, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, made headlines earlier this month when its associate pastor, the Rev. Beth Stroud, was found guilty of violating the church's ban on practicing homosexuals being ordained. She was defrocked, but remains a lay minister at the church.
Stroud is shown splitting ethical hairs in the [church] board meeting as she verbally dances around acceptance of her own dishonesty in allowing herself to be ordained. "It's a choice I made [to hide the relationship] in response to a calling [to the ministry]. But I don't think it's ethically unassailable," she says.
[The] story features the Rev. Fred Day, a traditionalist minister in his 50s who comes to First United in 2001, replacing a more liberal and dynamic minister who retired after 37 years at the church. The congregation that was founded in 1796 and has spent most of the 20th century committed to a ministry of social justice now finds itself losing members, cannibalizing its endowment and wondering whether it can survive.
As Stroud puts it in a moment of deep discouragement: "Maybe the true gospel is that we don't have enough money, and we're broke, and the building is falling apart, and we can't fix it. And then, at the end of the day, everybody's car gets broken into."
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.
Copyright 2004, The Baltimore Sun
By Jim Remsen, Inquirer Faith Life Editor
Cinema verité filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond got more verité than they bargained for when they set out two years ago to capture life at First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
Their two-hour documentary, The Congregation, airs at 9:30 [EDT] tonight on PBS.
After a smooth beginning, The Congregation grows ponderous as it burdens the viewer with too many themes, too many scenes, too many personages.
Stroud's curly head pops up throughout -- in the pulpit, teaching the youth group, on a teen retreat, at her computer, huddling with the pastoral team. Given what we know will befall her by the end, the scenes lend a foreboding air. With her screen presence and her news stature, Stroud has to be considered the star of the show.
Her drama, however, also highlights the
shortcomings of the Raymonds' method. Cinema verité is a spare,
you-are-there style that the Academy Award-winning couple from Devon
pioneered on mainstream television with An American Family on PBS in 1973.
But the home-video approach means that, except for a few moments of
voice-over narration at the beginning and end, The Congregation is
devoid of commentary, of identifications of speakers or scenes or timelines,
or other aids for the poor viewer.
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