June 24th, 2014
Last year a regional court of the United Methodist Church expelled Frank Schaefer from ministry.
Schaefer was a pastor of a small church in rural Pennsylvania when he officiated at his son’s wedding to another man. He didn’t make a big statement about it, and no one seemed to know or care until years later. But right before the statute of limitations on violations of the church rules ran out, a disgruntled parishioner complained to his Bishop and Schaefer was brought on trial.
There a jury of 13 pastors found him guilty of “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.” They sentences him to a 30 day suspension, and insisted that he promise to never officiate at same-sex weddings again.
But Schaefer has two more gay children and refused to promise to reject their future marriages, and so he was defrocked.
This didn’t actually decrease Schaefer’s ministry. He was invited by serve in a quasi-pastoral role by the Los Angeles Diocese and has been in much demand around the country as a guest minister in Methodist (and other) Churches who wished to show support for inclusion and equality.
And Schaefer has never agreed that his action was contrary to the spirit of his faith. Nor has he taken the ruling lying down. Schaefer appealed the decision to a higher Methodist court, insisting that a failure to promise is not a punishable offense. The court agreed (NYTimes)
A United Methodist Church appeals committee — a nine-member panel made up of laypeople and clergy members — said Tuesday that it had decided to overturn the ouster of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who with three gay children and a determination to celebrate their relationships has become an unexpected champion of gay men and lesbians in church life.
The panel deemed the defrocking to be an illegitimate effort to punish Mr. Schaefer for his refusal to promise not to preside at another same-sex wedding.
The decision is likely less based in the language of the Book of Order and more in the increasing refusal of American Methodists to be held to the anti-gay votes of international members of the global denomination. And it does suggest that at some point the US’ second largest Protestant denomination was schism.
The next assembly of the United Methodist Church is in 2016. Supporters of gay equality will push hard for a change in the denomination’s rules, and conservatives will continue to rally support from Asia and Africa in hopes of holding to anti-gay positions. It seems increasingly unlikely that anyone can stand outside the debate or not select sides. And irrespective of the outcome, a separation seems likely.
As for Schaefer, now that he has been “refrocked” he will be serving as pastor of a UMC church in Santa Barbara, California.
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Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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