A United Methodist pastor who was temporarily defrocked after officiating at his gay son's wedding will be able to stay in the ministry, the denomination's highest court ruled Monday.
The decision by the Judicial Council — meeting in Memphis, Tenn. — did not put to rest how the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination will deal with the issue of gay marriage. Based on a technical issue, it steered clear of expressing support for same-sex unions.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, who has been leading a Santa Barbara congregation since summer, was jubilant after the council's pronouncement.
"Justice was done," he said in a phone interview while en route to Los Angeles from a Wisconsin speaking engagement. "This really signals the entire Methodist church is interested in keeping the dialogue going, rather than just outright banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights. This is definitely a step farther down the road."
Schaefer was stripped of his ordination in December after he refused to tell a church jury that he would not preside over more same-sex marriages. Methodist law forbids clergy to bless such unions.
In June, a Methodist appeals court restored Schaefer's ministerial rights, ruling that he was being unfairly punished for a hypothetical — an action that had yet to occur. Shortly afterward, Schaefer moved from his longtime home in Pennsylvania to Southern California, taking over a struggling Methodist church near the UC Santa Barbara campus.
But the pastor's problems weren't over. The church appealed the June decision, and the case was turned over to the Judicial Council, which heard arguments last week.
On Monday, the council affirmed Schaefer's reinstatement, agreeing that while he had refused to promise to uphold church law "in its entirety," he was being punished for something that had yet to happen.
Schaefer, who has three gay children, officiated at the wedding of his eldest son in 2007. The ceremony was held in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage was legal, but the pastor kept it a secret from his largely conservative congregation in Lebanon, Pa.
Six years later, one of his congregants found out about Schaefer's role at the ceremony and filed an official complaint, setting the stage for the first trial.
Held in a small church camp about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, the December proceeding received national attention — partly because United Methodists, like other mainline Christians, have been grappling with the issues of same-sex marriage and gay rights.
Earlier this month, the church agreed to resolve a complaint against 36 United Methodist clergy members in Pennsylvania who had blessed a gay wedding in 2013, partly as a show of support for Schaefer. To avoid being disciplined, the pastors were required to admit that they broke church law. .
Methodist doctrine accepts gay congregants but calls sex outside of heterosexual marriage "incompatible with Christian teaching." Some within the church have expressed concern that the issue could cause an official split between congregations that accept gay marriage and those that do not.
Monday's ruling, along with the continuing push to accept gay unions, "puts the life of our church in deep jeopardy," said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, a leader of the church's conservative wing who ministers at Woodlands United Methodist Church outside Houston. Renfroe said Schaefer had been reinstated on a "legal technicality, and people are rejoicing as if this is a great moral victory. It's no wonder so many people in our pews are fearful for the future of our denomination."
During his first trial, Schaefer urged the denomination to begin embracing LGBT rights as an extension of Jesus' teachings on compassion and love.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño, leader of the United Methodist California-Pacific Conference and a gay-rights advocate, had vowed to find Schaefer a job even before the June reinstatement. She invited him to work as a pastor under her leadership, naming him to lead University Church in Isla Vista.
"I rejoice in the decision of the Judicial Council," Carcaño said in a statement Monday. "I believe it affirms our United Methodist commitment to doing all the good we can in the name of Jesus our Lord."