Methodist pastor faces trial for son's gay wedding
The Rev. Frank Schaefer officiated at 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, 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.
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 had not given homosexuality a lot of thought until his son Tim came out at age 17, telling his parents that he had contemplated suicide because of his struggle with his sexual identity.
To Schaefer, his son's admission was proof that homosexuality is not a choice.