About five years ago, two television executives at WETA, the flagship public broadcaster in Washington, D.C., thought of profiling a congregation in the so-called "mainstream" of Protestantism. Their premise was that a theologically and socially liberal Christianity, though largely invisible in the American news and entertainment media, was a significant cultural force and deserved attention. They commissioned a pair of seasoned, high-profile documentary film producers, Alan and Susan Raymond. Funding rolled in from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Lilly Endowment. Consultants were recruited from seminaries.
Which liberal Protestant congregation should be chosen? The Raymonds were based in the Philadelphia area, and considered it nicely representative of the country. From the Alban Institute of Herndon, Virginia, an organization for congregational research and consulting, they received recommendations of churches in the area. One of the churches they visited was First United Methodist Church of Germantown, or FUMCOG (pronounced "FUMM-cog" or "FOOM-cog"). It seemed ideal for several reasons. United Methodists are the largest mainstream Protestant denomination in the United States, and FUMCOG, founded in 1796, was one of its first congregations. Typically of urban American churches, FUMCOG thrived before the 1950s, then declined when middle-class whites fled to the suburbs. Now multi-racial and socially diverse, the church was facing problems in its attendance, endowment, buildings, and balance sheets. It was certainly socially progressive, with a long record of fighting for civil rights, opposing the war in Vietnam, protesting apartheid, giving illegal sanctuary to Guatemalan refugees, and supporting gays and lesbians. And, perhaps most interestingly, a new senior minister, Fred Day, had just arrived in July 2001, succeeding a denominational legend, Ted Loder, who had dominated FUMCOG from 1962 to 2000. Here was a story-line for the documentary: a new minister makes his transition into a historic congregation with a strong liberal missionary identity.
For thirteen months, from May 2002 to June 2003, the Raymonds and their cameras attended worship services, congregational meetings, youth retreats, and family meals, and conducted interviews. But was this the stuff from which captivating television could be made? Happily for the Raymonds if not for FUMCOG, drama erupted: the congregation divided over core values and direction. In January 2003 it hired independent consultants to manage what was benignly called "the talking cure." The senior pastor became embattled. Then in April 2003 the associate pastor, Beth Stroud, disclosed from the pulpit that she was a lesbian living in a covenanted partnership. (Her sermon can be found at www.bethstroud.info.) After the major filming, but before the documentary was assembled, Day announced his departure, and Stroud's ministerial credentials were revoked after a widely reported church trial. The Raymonds, evidently unfamiliar with church life, were surprised at all this conflict. "You don't normally associate such tension and stress within a church setting," they say on their website (www.videoverite.tv).
The two-hour documentary "The Congregation" aired on PBS stations on 29 December 2004, supported by a discussion guide (www.pbs.org/thecongregation). It's an absorbing film. In the realistic style of cinéma vérité, an apparently unobtrusive camera records the unscripted activity of ordinary church members. Aside from a brief introduction and epilogue, the filmmakers don't intervene to identify places or dates, offer explanations, or pass judgments. Opening scenes establish context-the overwhelmingly black neighborhood, the predominantly white congregation, a guest band blowing jazz, a child being baptized, the choir singing, the carilloneur playing. Then two story-lines take shape: Fred Day's leadership divides the congregation, and Beth Stroud's coming-out unites it. …