Minister defrocked over same-sex marriage, will appeal

The Rev. Frank Schaefer said the decision that he could no longer minister saddened him. "I will continue to be a voice for the LGBT community," he said.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer said the decision that he could no longer minister saddened him. "I will continue to be a voice for the LGBT community," he said. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 21, 2013

The Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked Thursday for refusing to abide by the United Methodist Church's policies on homosexuality, writing another chapter in a case that stirred a wider call for social change when he was put on trial for officiating at his son's gay wedding.

Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., had hoped that the church's Board of Ordained Ministers would allow him to keep his credentials, effectively letting him stand as a voice for gay rights in a church deeply divided over its ban on same-sex weddings and gay clergy.

That group met for just 15 minutes at the Norristown offices of the church's Eastern Pennsylvania conference before making its decision.

"I said to myself, 'I just cannot see them take my credentials.' I mean, what I did was an act of love for my son," Schaefer said Thursday at a news conference at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

As he spoke in front of a line of cameras in the vaulted church, Schaefer's shoulders slumped; he lacked the zeal he had possessed in recent weeks while advocating for gay rights in the church. Schaefer at times had guessed that his case might end with his ouster from the pulpit, but said his sadness after the board's decision had taken him by surprise.

"It's one thing to talk about the possibility and another to experience it," he said as the church emptied. "Today, I could really feel what it felt like to be excluded."

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who oversees the conference, said the board did not have the power to overrule the order a jury gave Schaefer at the end of his two-day trial held last month at a Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Chester County.

The jury told him to recommit to the doctrine or step aside.

Schaefer chose to do neither.

His refusal to step down, his attorney, William Ewing, said, will be at the center of an appeal Schaefer filed just hours after his defrocking Thursday. Ewing said the jury's instructions did not allow for his credentials to be taken if he did not hand them over voluntarily. He also said the church could not punish Schaefer for future behavior.

Schaefer's case could continue to hold the spotlight on the United Methodist Church as it and other denominations grapple with the divisive issue of gay rights. United Methodist doctrine characterizes homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teachings.

Emboldened groups

Locally, the trial has emboldened groups that have long fought for change within the church and have seen Schaefer's case - and the national attention it has gained - as a springboard for their cause.

Advocates circulated petitions and organized protests in Schaefer's support, including a same-sex wedding last month at Philadelphia's Arch Street United Methodist Church jointly officiated by more than 50 ministers.

Conservative groups have said those efforts threaten unity in the church and are attempts to skirt available paths for reform. John Lomperis, a director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, applauded Thursday's outcome.

"This episode highlights the importance of churches in all traditions protecting themselves and the cause of Christ by carefully screening would-be pastors for biblical grounding and moral character, and having effective means of accountability," he said in a statement.

While Schaefer is just one of a half-dozen pastors in the last 15 years for breaking the church's rules concerning homosexuality, two of those cases have been in the Eastern Pennsylvania conference. On Thursday, Schaefer spoke in front of the same pulpit where Beth Stroud, on the Sunday after Easter 2003, came out to her Germantown congregation as a lesbian.

Stroud, who now lives near Princeton, was also defrocked.

Advocates say at least three similar trials are on the horizon in the United States. Schaefer, who for five years kept his son's wedding ceremony a secret from his congregation, Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, before a member of his congregation found out and filed a complaint, has said he plans to be involved in those cases.

'Two sides of our mouths'

Regardless of Schaefer's fate, supporters say they have seen progress come through his case.

Johnson, who has spoken in support of antidiscrimination legislation in Pennsylvania, on Tuesday issued a statement saying some parts of the church's book of discipline are discriminatory against homosexuals. While other parts of church law affirm gay members, the contradictions leave many "from the outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouths," Johnson wrote.

The bishop said after Thursday's board meeting that she felt compelled to take the controversial stance after being a silent observer during Schaefer's trial.

"It's just my opinion. I'm not speaking the words of the discipline, because the discipline is clear that we do not do [same-sex] weddings. The discipline is clear that we consider homosexuality to be contrary to Christian teachings," she said. "I kind of don't totally agree with that."

Johnson, who said her perspective on ministering was shaped by her 20 years in an all-deaf congregation in Baltimore, stopped short of saying those laws should be changed. But a wider dialogue, she said, is needed.

She said there was no joy surrounding the decision reached Thursday. Schaefer, who has three gay children, said he left the board meeting Thursday and was embraced by church members, many of whom had tears in their eyes.

Ewing said he anticipated the appeals council for the church's Northeast jurisdiction, which oversees nine conferences, will make a decision on Schaefer's appeal in summer or fall of 2014. That decision could further be appealed to the church's judicial council, equivalent to its supreme court.

"I still am a minister in my heart, and I will continue to minister," Schaefer said. "I will continue to be a voice for the LGBT community."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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