Six months after losing his ordination credentials for presiding over the wedding of his gay son and for leaving open the possibility of performing future same-sex wedding ceremonies, a Pennsylvania pastor has been welcomed back into the United Methodist Church.
On Tuesday, a nine-person appeals panel of church officials overturned an earlier decision to defrock Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., who in 2007 married his oldest son, Tim, to another man. The wedding took place in Massachusetts, which had become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage three years before.
But critics decried the move as a direct violation of Schaefer’s pastoral vows, in which he promised to uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Though church law instructs Methodists to accept gays and lesbians as members, it also labels the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Clergy members are forbidden from either performing same-sex wedding ceremonies, or from being“self-avowed practicing homosexuals” themselves. A debate over the Book of Discipline’s glaring contradictions on homosexuality has gripped the United Methodist Church for over a decade.
“I can’t even begin to describe how meaningful this ‘refrocking’ is to me,” said Schaefer in a statement Tuesday. “Today’s decision by the committee is a hopeful sign for our LGBTQ community. They recognized that I was wrongfully punished for standing with those who are discriminated against.”
In December, a 13-member jury of fellow clergy members stripped Schaefer of his ordination credentials following an eight-month long church trial process, sparked by a congregant’s complaint. After serving a 30-day suspension, Schaefer refused to denounce same-sex marriage.
But the defrocking was uncalled for under church law, an appeals panel concluded, as ”clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future.” They upheld the 30-day suspension, which Schaefer already served, and said he should get back pay dating to when the suspension ended in December, the Associated Press reports. The church can still appeal Tuesday’s decision to its highest court, the Judicial Council.
Schaefer’s trial was the first since the worldwide General Conference last reaffirmed the church’s stance on homosexuality, but others looked to be on the way. In March, Bishop Martin McLee of the New York Annual Conference called off a different church trial in the case of the Reverend Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, who also faced defrocking for officiating the wedding of his gay son. McLee called for a cessation of all church trials in matters related to same-sex marriage, and instead committed to “a process of theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastical conversation.”