Nearly a year after Rev. Frank Schaefer lost his ordination credentials for presiding over the 2007 wedding of his gay son, Tim, the 52-year-old United Methodist pastor suited up in his rainbow stole once again, ready to potentially receive the same fate.
Schaefer appeared on Wednesday before the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council, the denomination’s version of the Supreme Court, for the third and final phase of his long-running church trial. In December, Schaefer was defrocked for violating his pastoral vows, which forbid United Methodist clergy from officiating weddings for same-sex couples, or from being “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” themselves. Six months later, a nine-person appeals panel of church officials overturned that decision and welcomed Schaefer back into his role.
At the center of the intensifying debate within the United Methodist Church, home to the nation’s second-largest group of Protestants, lies a seemingly inconsistent message over how to address its gay and lesbian members. The Book of Discipline teaches its subscribers to accept them, while at the same time condemns the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Since Schaefer’s reinstatement last June, marriage equality has swept the country at an exponential rate, expanding to 32 states as of this week. That puts the United Methodist Church and other denominations at a critical juncture where the leadership must figure out how to align Christian doctrine with developing national policies. As more states legalize marriage equality, a growing number of pastors will undoubtedly find themselves in Schaefer’s shoes -- having to choose between church law, or the same-sex couples they love.
The Judicial Council won’t have a decision about Schaefer’s credentials until after their meeting concludes on Saturday. In an interview with msnbc, the pastor explained his take on the hearing, the state of the United Methodist Church, and what lies ahead for him and his family. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
How did you think the hearing went?
It was a good hearing. It went about an hour and half, and I feel very good about my counsel presenting a very solid argument. I have to say, the counsel of the church also had a strong performance, and had a good argument. But I felt better about our presentation. We all on the team feel we’ve done the best we could. So I’m cautiously optimistic that we will have a favorable outcome.
What have you been up to these last few months?
I took Bishop Carcaño of the California-Pacific Annual Conference up on her job offer. So I moved to California with my wife, and we’re living in Isla Vista where they have a ministry there near the U.C. Santa Barbara campus. We’re surrounded by students -- the church is right in the middle of student housing. So I’m reaching out to the students and providing ministry of all kinds, doing ecumenical events. It’s a beautiful ministry. But then the Judicial Council hearing happened, which threw up a lot of questions again.
I am also currently promoting my book and speaking at a lot of book events for different churches and universities. The book, “Defrocked,” shares in a transparent and honest way the story of what I went through, what my family went through, and gives our emotional responses to what happened. I’ve been told it’s somewhat inspirational in terms of showing how when you stand up for what’s right, there is a community that will reach out to you. That’s what happened to me.
Can you explain your emotional journey over the past year? Do you feel different going into this hearing than you did going into the first?
Even though I lost everything, there was this really awesome community inside of the church who reached out to us. I started to speak everywhere and was getting honorariums. We were provided for. So the bottom line is, I will never be afraid again to speak out for the truth, and stand up for my conscience and my heart. If you do the right thing, it will come back to you, and God will provide for you. It’s karma.
So you’re not in danger of losing your job if the Judicial Council defrocks you?
My job is not in jeopardy. Bishop Carcaño has made it clear that I’m going to continue in this ministry. The question is whether I will continue in the clergy, where I am now, or in a lay position. That gives me some personal reassurance that I’m going to be OK. My family is going to be OK. My biggest focus is what kind of signal the council is going to send to the LGBT community within the church. Is it going to be a message of possible change, or are they going to dig in their heels and stick with the traditional, conservative agenda?
How is your son doing? I know his first marriage, the one which sparked your church trial, has ended. Did he remarry?
He has found a new man, and they’re in love. He’s good, doing really well. The big news about Tim is through all this ordeal, he heard the call of God to become a minister himself, largely due to the fact that he experienced the church reach out to us. The reconciling part of the church has really made a big difference. He’s currently looking into seminary.
Does he want to be ordained in the United Methodist Church?
He keeps hoping for a change in the UMC, and if that happens, then yes, it will be an option. As it stands now, he wouldn’t have a chance to be openly gay and in a relationship.
Since we last spoke, there has been a flood of marriage equality victories. Thirty-two states now allow gay and lesbian couples to legally wed. Do you think that momentum will impact your case?
I am celebrating every single one of those states. Every time there’s more news about that, I break out the champagne. It’s wonderful. Who would have thought two years ago, that now we would have a majority of the states lifting their bans? It’s unbelievably wonderful. And I do think it has a huge impact on the church, and will have an impact on the council, who’ll make this decision. It’s wonderful on so many levels, and rekindles the dialogue every time there’s a new state added. The church has to deal with this on a different level than before. People felt like it didn’t affect us, but now it does. You will have couples coming to a Rabbi, coming to a minister, and saying, ‘Will you marry us?’ It’s a game changer, and it’s going to change the church eventually.