By Kathy L. Gilbert*
SPRING CITY, Penn. (UMNS) — When asked what he would say to the people who brought charges against him for officiating at his son’s same-sex marriage, the Rev. Frank Schaefer said, “I cannot blame them because at one point I also had a different opinion.
“It took half a lifetime for me to come to this conclusion that we have to be inclusive, we cannot exclude anybody. Everybody is a child of God, everybody has the same human rights.”
During a two-day church trial, a jury of United Methodist ordained clergy found him guilty of violating the denomination’s law against performing a same-sex wedding and of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.
The jury decided on a 30-day suspension that will be followed by stripping him of his clergy credentials if he cannot agree to obey the denomination’s law book “in its entirety.”
What does the church say
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.” The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016. Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law. The Book of Discipline also states that marriageis between a man and a woman.
Speaking to a group of reporters after the trial ended, he said he was surprised he walked out of the trial with the title of “Rev.”
“I gave them every excuse in the book to defrock me immediately but that did not happen,” he said. “I am still wondering what it means. I told them clearly that I can no longer be a silent supporter but now I feel I have to an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people.”
The 30-day suspension seems to be “time for me to change my mind,” he said. “I am here to tell you, I will not change my mind. I am what I am.”
In the next 30 days Schaefer is to be monitored by his district superintendent, the Rev. James Todd, and then report and be interviewed by the conference’s board of ordained ministry.
“This is a very divisive topic and I am hoping we can get one little step further in the discussion and hopefully one of these days get rid of those exclusionary policies altogether,” he said.
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church, told reporters, “He (Schaefer) gets to choose, it is his responsibility whether he can live within the covenant The United Methodist Church has for clergy. When we make our vows we promise to uphold the Discipline of our church and if we are not willing to keep those promises there are judicial procedures that are instituted.”
Reactions have been pouring in after the trial.
Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference said, “We know that United Methodists have diverse opinions on this issue and our hope is that we pray and work together toward unity and greater understanding and healing.”
Representatives of Faithful America, a non-denominational, online community that describes itself as dedicated to “reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice,”on Nov. 20 presented Johnson with a petition signed by more than 19,000 calling for an end to clergy trials.
Good News, an unofficial, evangelical United Methodist group that advocates maintaining the denomination’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, said the verdict and penalty was a sad day in the history of the church but eminently appropriate.
Called to a new ministry
On the first day of the trial, Schaefer told his story of falling in love with The United Methodist Church.
He said he was called to ministry 22 years ago when he relocated to the U.S. from Germany. He talked about joining a “lively church in Virginia.” After becoming active in that church the minister called him into the office one day and said “I think you are being called into ministry.”
“My first thought was I didn’t want to go back to school,” Schaefer said.
He said he fasted and prayed for three days. On the last day he said he had a dream. “I saw myself talking to my best friend as a younger man, at 17, ready to graduate from high school. I was saying what I would really like to do is go to Bible college but I can’t go without a sign from God. God was standing next to me and he asked, ‘Who do you think put that desire in your heart?’”
He took that as his sign. While he was in school, he and his family became involved with a United Methodist Church and “loved it.”
When it came time to decide on a denomination, Schaefer said, he called United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison.
“I told her I had always been active in church, I told her about my love for The United Methodist Church and she said, ‘Welcome to The United Methodist Church.’”
“There have been many joys and some hardships but many joys. My wife always said she didn’t sign up to be a minister’s wife. She’s right but she’s a good one. We have struggled as a church family living in fish bowl.”
Schaefer said three of his four children are gay.
During the news conference after the end of the trial, Schaefer again expressed his love for the church.
“I do love the church and it will be a tremendous loss (if he has to surrender his credentials),” he said. “There could have been a different ruling tonight that would have led to a path … There is a diversity of opinions in The United Methodist Church and that was not acknowledged tonight in this ruling.
“I think my son is very proud of me for standing up for him and for everybody who is gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual. I did this for him and my other children but I did it really for the LGBT community as well.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470.
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