The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

June 18, 2014

Defrocked Methodist pastor appealing punishment for officiating same-sex marriage

— Frank Schaefer lost his job but not his voice.

Defrocked by the United Methodist Church six months ago for officiating his son's same-sex wedding, Schaefer has gained a following among reformers who want the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination to loosen its policies on homosexuality.

He's told his story dozens of times to largely sympathetic audiences around the country: How his son came out to him as a teenager who had contemplated suicide. How he hid the 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation, fearing it would sow division. How he finally decided ‚ in the midst of his high-profile church trial last fall  to become an outspoken advocate for gay rights at a time when his denomination is bitterly divided over the issue.

After his trial and conviction, "I thought I had lost everything," recalled Schaefer, 52. "There was a moment of pain and depression and the next thing I knew, I was catapulted . I have more opportunities now than I ever did."

Except the right to call himself a Methodist minister.

"I would like to get my credentials back," said Schaefer, who will appear before a church panel in Baltimore this week to argue that his punishment was illegal under church law. "I'm hoping for a 're-frocking.'"

In little more than six months, Schaefer has become a public face of the movement to change church policy on homosexuals. The Methodist church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects sex outside of heterosexual marriage as "incompatible with Christian teaching." Openly gay people may not serve as clergy, and ministers are forbidden from performing same-sex marriages.

The issue has roiled the Methodist church for more than 40 years, but the conflict between theological conservatives and liberals has intensified recently. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, while traditionalists say they have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.

"The church is a little shell-shocked right now," Schaefer said.

Church officials put the German-born preacher on trial in southeastern Pennsylvania after one of his congregants in Lebanon filed a complaint against him, accusing him of ignoring his pastoral vows by presiding over his son's ceremony in Massachusetts.

Schaefer could have avoided the trial and, after his conviction, kept his ordination by promising he wouldn't perform another same-gender wedding. But he refused, declaring he would officiate more gay marriages if asked.

His stand galvanized gay rights activists within the church, and he's become a fixture on the lecture circuit. In between appearances, Schaefer wrote a book, "Defrocked," that will be released later this month by Chalice Press. A documentary film crew has been following him around and a Philadelphia theater company is developing a play about him.

But Schaefer still considers himself a country preacher, and he wants another congregation to call his own. He will argue before a nine-member Committee on Appeals on Friday that his defrocking was improper because it was based on the assumption that he would break church law in the future.

"His return from suspension cannot be conditioned on his good behavior," said his clergy counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell. "You cannot penalize people for what they might do. The penalty needs to be related to what he has done."

A decision by the appeals panel is expected as early as Saturday. Campbell said it's likely the losing side will appeal to the Judicial Counsel, the denomination's highest court. At least three other Methodist pastors have been tried for performing same-sex marriages, but none of their cases made it to the high court.

Even if the Judicial Counsel weighs in, though, the Schaefer case is unlikely to have broader implications for a denomination so intractably divided, said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of a theologically conservative Methodist movement called Good News.

"We are in complete chaos right now, and having the Judicial Counsel rule appropriately will not change the chaos," he said. "It's not going to stop progressives from breaking the Book of Discipline, and it's not going to lure traditionalists into any false sense that this is taken care of."

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