Officials have defrocked a United Methodist (U.M.) pastor for refusing to denounce same-sex marriage in compliance with church law, following a 30-day suspension for presiding over the 2007 wedding of his gay son to another man.
Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., met with the U.M. Board of Ordained Ministry on Thursday – the final day of his suspension and the deadline for the 51-year-old to decide whether he would obey church law, which bars clergy members from marrying couples of the same gender, or his own conscience.
Schaefer had already made up his mind, announcing on Monday that he would neither uphold the U.M. church’s position on homosexuality, nor voluntarily surrender his ordination credentials. The law, he said, is discriminatory and “filled with competing and contradictory statements.”
“I wanted to find a way of answering truthfully and still keep my credentials in the church,” said Schaefer in a press briefing Monday. “I have really wrestled and agonized over this, but finally came to the conclusion that my honest answer has to be no. I cannot uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety. In fact, I don’t believe anybody can.”
The U.M. Book of Discipline teaches its subscribers to accept gay and lesbian Christians as members, but reject the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also forbids clergy members from presiding over weddings between two people of the same sex, or from being “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” themselves.
In 2007, Schaefer bucked this law when he married his oldest son, Tim, to another man in Massachusetts, the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage. Two more of his children are gay, and Schaefer said at the end of trial that he would no longer be a “silent supporter” of LGBT rights.
Thursday’s decision to defrock Schaefer marks the end of an eight-month church trial process that began when a congregant filed a complaint against the pastor in April, one month before the church’s statute of limitations was due to expire. In November, a 13-member jury of fellow clergy members found Schaefer guilty of violating his pastoral vows and gave him a 30-day suspension. If at the end of 30 days, Schaefer still refused to denounce same-sex marriage, he would have to give up his credentials, the jury said.
Though Schaefer’s trial was the first since the worldwide General Conference last reaffirmed the church’s stance on homosexulaity, a growing number look to be on the way. Congregants have filed similar complaints against a handful of other pastors for either performing same-sex marriages, or coming out as openly gay themselves. It is not yet known whether these complaints will turn into trials like Schaefer’s, but the possibility remains.
On Monday, Schaefer and 43 other U.M. clergy members sent a petition to Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference asking her to acknowledge the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline, and stop LGBT-related trials. Johnson did acknowledge that several statements in the Book of Discipline on homosexuality were “discriminatory,” and that church trials over such matters were “not helpful.” But she did not have the power to change the course of Schaefer’s proceedings.
“We must commit ourselves to engage in ongoing prayer and reflection, sensitive, peaceful dialogue and diligent study, so that we can better understand the needs and concerns of LGBT members and their broader community,” said Johnson in a statement Thursday. “We also must strive to repent and forgive one another for the many hurts that have happened and are still happening as a result of this trial experience.”