Methodist pastor's reinstatement may be appealed

Frank Schaefer is confident he will keep his credentials.
Frank Schaefer is confident he will keep his credentials. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2014

Frank Schaefer's battle may not be over.

A Methodist church panel on Tuesday found that the pastor from Lebanon, Pa., was wrongly defrocked for officiating at his son's gay wedding.

While Schaefer celebrated and planned a move to California for a new job as a full-time minister, the church's prosecutor was contemplating an appeal to the Judicial Council, its highest appeals body. That step would extend the national attention on a debate over same-sex marriage in the United Methodist Church, and could deepen divides within the denomination.

The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who prosecuted the case on behalf of the church, has until Aug. 21 - 60 days before the Judicial Council's October meeting - to file an appeal. Fisher said this week that he would consider an appeal.

Conservative Methodists, some of whom have called for a split in the church over gay marriage, said Wednesday that they hoped for a different outcome before the Judicial Council.

The council has nine members from around the country and overseas, elected to eight-year terms. That group tends to be more conservative than members of the church's Northeastern Jurisdiction, which filled the panel that heard Schaefer's appeal in Baltimore last week, said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, an evangelical conservative reform and renewal movement.

"The northeastern part of the country is much more liberal than other parts of the country, and so I think that the committee on appeals represents the viewpoint of that part of the country, whereas the Judicial Council is elected more broadly," Lambrecht said.

If the Judicial Council reverses the outcome of Schaefer's appeal, his case would mirror that of Beth Stroud, a former pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

Stroud went to trial in 2004, after she came out as a lesbian to her congregation. Like Schaefer, she was defrocked at trial, then reinstated by an appeals panel. The Judicial Council ultimately ruled that church law did not permit Stroud to serve as an openly gay minister and she was defrocked.

Stroud, now working toward a doctorate in religion at Princeton University, said Wednesday that she did not begin ministering again after she won her appeal because she anticipated her case would go before the Judicial Council.

"I felt very cautious about that, but of course that was 10 years ago and a very different case and a very different argument," Stroud said.

Schaefer, on the other hand, was appointed hours after Tuesday's decision to a position ministering to students in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"There's certainly a part of me that wishes that kind of opportunity had been extended to me 10 years ago," Stroud said.

But, she said, she is happy both for Schaefer and for changes in the last decade, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in several states and the refusal by some Methodist bishops to send ministers to trial for officiating at same-sex weddings.

Standing in Stroud's former Germantown church on Tuesday, Schaefer acknowledged that his case could also face review by the Judicial Council. But he felt confident he will keep his ministering credentials.

"Just having briefly read through the ruling by the appeal committee, I feel very good that they made a solid case that will probably stand, even to the scrutiny of the Judicial Council," Schaefer said.

At the close of his trial last fall, he was suspended for 30 days and ordered to promise that he would uphold church law in the future. The appeals panel upheld his 30-day suspension but concluded the pledge required of Schaefer violated church law, because ministers cannot be held accountable for future actions.

John Lomperis of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, said he was not surprised by the decision because the appeals committee is "liberal-stacked" and its president, Jen Ihlo, has been an advocate for gay rights within the church.

Ihlo said Wednesday that she and the eight other members of the committee put aside their personal feelings and deliberated only about church law.

"I would say that the committee fairly represented the church," Ihlo said. "We didn't come into this as like-minded on the issue of gay marriage, nor did we attempt to leave there united on the issue of gay marriage."

Ted A. Campbell, a professor of church history at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology, predicted that the Judicial Council would uphold Schaefer's reinstatement.

"And it's not a matter of being more conservative or liberal in this case," Campbell said. "It just comes down to what the law of the church is."


lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal

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