By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
The Rev. Frank Schaefer officiated his son’s same-sex marriage “because I love him so much and didn’t want to deny him that joy,” but his decision to flout Methodist law could cost him his pastor’s credentials in the latest flashpoint of a debate roiling the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination.
Schaefer, 51, faces a church trial in southeastern Pennsylvania over charges that he broke his pastoral vows by performing the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts. The United Methodist Church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and clergy who perform same-sex unions risk punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to defrocking.
The German-born pastor is unapologetic, saying he answered to a higher law—God’s command to love everyone.
“If I am charged to minister to all people, regardless of who they are and what they are, then it should be just so,” he said.
Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and some of them, like Schaefer, are facing discipline for presiding over same-sex weddings. Schaefer’s trial is set to begin Nov. 18 at a Methodist retreat in Spring City, Pa.
Critics say Schaefer and other clergy should not be permitted to flout Methodist teaching with impunity, contending they are sowing division within the church and ignoring the church’s democratic decision-making process. The denomination’s top legislative body, the 1,000-member General Conference, reaffirmed the church’s 40-year-old policy on gays at their last worldwide meeting in 2012.
Rebellious clergy “have decided to take the law into their own hands, so to speak, and go ahead and violate the requirements of our (Book of) Discipline,” the denomination’s book of law and doctrine, said the Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, an evangelical Methodist group. “They have in a sense renounced the process that we use to determine what the church believes about things. I don’t think that is the appropriate way to handle disagreement.”
On Saturday, some 50 clergy plan to show their support of Schaefer by presiding over a same-sex ceremony at a Methodist church in Philadelphia—a largely symbolic gesture since Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize gay marriage, but one that could still land the preachers in hot water.
“If we are operating under the position of open hearts, open minds and open doors, we can’t close those doors to certain people,” said the Rev. David Brown of Arch Street United Methodist Church, where the ceremony will take place.
Schaefer hadn’t given homosexuality a lot of thought until his son Tim came out at age 17, telling his parents he had contemplated suicide because of his struggle with sexual identity.
“Growing up as a ‘PK,’ a pastor’s kid, he didn’t think that he was the way he was supposed to be, that his sexual orientation was wrong and sinful according to the church,” Schaefer said. “He got that message from the church and the large culture that there was something wrong with him.”
To Schaefer, his son’s admission was proof that homosexuality is not a choice.
“If that’s the case, this is the way God made him,” Schaefer said. “This is the way he was created, as a homosexual.”
Schaefer said he informed his superiors in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference that he planned to officiate Tim Schaefer’s wedding, and again after the ceremony. He said he faced no discipline until April—about a month before the church’s six-year statute of limitations was set to expire—when one of his congregants filed a complaint.
Schaefer could have avoided a trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-gender wedding. That’s a promise he said he couldn’t make—because three of his four children are gay.
“I do worry about losing my credentials,” he said, “but I’m willing to lose them for an act of love.”