Methodist church reinstates defrocked minister who secretly performed same-sex ‘marriage’ ceremony
The United Methodist Church’s highest denominational court has reversed an earlier decision by a church jury to defrock a Pennsylvania pastor who officiated his son’s gay “wedding” in violation of church regulations.
Frank Schaefer was temporarily stripped of his ministerial duties last year after he refused to promise never to perform another same-sex “marriage” ceremony. Previously, he had been suspended for 30 days for performing the original “wedding” – which was done secretly in 2007 in Massachusetts and only came to light after a parishioner found out and reported him.
Schaefer appealed the defrocking and won, but the church appealed further, bringing the case before the Judicial Council, the UMC’s highest court. On a technicality, the Council ruled that Schaefer can remain in ministry in California, where he transferred after his prior appeal.
According to the Judicial Council, had the jury simply defrocked Schaefer for the original violation, their decision would probably still stand. Where they erred was in punishing him with a 30-day suspension and then punishing him again for what amounted to a future violation (his refusal to promise not to break the rules again).
“I am willing to uphold every other rule, except for this one, because it’s discrimination,” Schaefer said. He added that he has “absolutely no regrets. I did what I did based on my heart and my conscience. What I did for my son, quite frankly, I had to do.”
The Judicial Council acknowledged that many of its 12 million members will see their decision as a “flagrant disregard" for church discipline. “We are mindful of the divisions within our church,” the Council wrote.
The UMC has been debating the issue of same-sex “marriage” for years, but the relentless march toward nationwide legalization of the practice has turned up the intensity of the fight.
Since his removal and reinstatement as a minister, Schaefer has been a vocal advocate for changing the UMC’s laws to allow same-sex unions, preaching sermons nationwide urging homosexual acceptance. Recently, 36 Methodist pastors narrowly avoided disciplinary action by church officials after they blessed a same-sex “wedding” to show support for Schaefer. Last month, Schaefer released a book called "Defrocked: How a Father's Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Church."
While the Judicial Council has allowed Schaefer to continue his ministerial role, they emphasized that UMC teaching on the nature of sex and marriage has not changed. The denomination’s Book of Discipline still says all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
John Lomperis, the United Methodist Action Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said he was disappointed with the Judicial Council’s ruling.
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"It is disappointing to see Schaefer escape accountability, based on the Judicial Council's uncritical acceptance of some very flawed arguments of his legal team,” Lemperis said in a statement. “This will certainly undermine trust in the Council as well as in our bishops, who nominated most of its members.”
"This episode follows a long pattern of conservative United Methodists bending over backwards to be gracious to church-killing radicals, while the latter cynically abuse the grace they are offered to selfishly hurt the church,” Lomperis added. “Now the Judicial Council's effective message for future trial courts is: to hold out-of-control clergy accountable, you should be as punitive as possible, not creatively offering them a second chance, as Schaefer's penalty did. And avoid delegating implementation of the penalty to another body.”
Still, Lomperis noted, "this single case does NOT change our denomination's basic standards. The United Methodist Church still officially affirms God's compassionate, biblical boundaries for sexual self-control and makes our clergy liable for punishment if they personally violate them or bless same-sex unions. This ruling does not protect United Methodist clergy put on trial in the future for blessing same-sex unions, but may help make effective punishment more likely.”
Lomperis had particularly harsh words for Schaefer, whom he said “pursued a cynical, any-means-necessary strategy, even to the point of blatant dishonesty, to selfishly impose as much damage on the church as possible, after already devastating his former congregation.”
“Today, [Schaefer’s] supporters will celebrate their ‘victory’ over accountability, Scripture, and the growing majority of other United Methodists,” Lomperis said. “But the future of our denomination belongs to an increasingly global, biblically faithful majority whose ministries offer far greater hope to ALL people, including same-sex-attracted individuals, than the divisive tactics, public grandstanding, and secularized worldview of a vocally disruptive minority."