A Pennsylvania Methodist minister, who was defrocked six months ago after officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, on Tuesday won his appeal to have his religious credentials restored.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer had been suspended for 30 days on Nov. 18, after a jury of Methodist pastors convicted him of violating church law. When the suspension expired, he was defrocked after refusing to promise never to perform another same-sex marriage. Three of Schaefer’s four children are gay.
“I’m just elated,” Schaefer said. “It was a victory for me, for the church and for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community.”
A nine-person panel of clergy and lay members determined that Schaefer’s punishment was “unlawful” because revoking his credentials “cannot be squared with the well-established principle that our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future.”
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the body that defrocked Schaefer, has not said whether it will appeal the reinstatement. If appealed, the matter would go to the Judicial Council, the Methodists’ top court.
“I intend to abide by the committee’s decision and return him to active service as an ordained clergy member of this conference presently,” Johnson said in a statement. “I also ask for continuing, supportive prayers for Mr. Schaefer, his family, and the members and churches of our conference and our denomination, as we struggle gracefully to find common ground.”
The decision means Schaefer, who was pastor at the Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., for 11 years, can return to religious work and will retroactively receive his salary and benefits. In July, Schaefer, 52, will become the Senior Pastor of the Isla Vista Student Ministry in Santa Barbara, CA and his clergy membership will be transferred to the California-Pacific Conference.
“Rev. Schaefer has much to teach us about what it means to love the children God gives us who happen to be gay,” said Bishop Minerva Carcaño, of the California conference. “I pray that we will make space for him and his family in our lives and in our hearts as he comes to labor among us.”
The panel that heard Schaefer’s appeal Friday in Linthicum, Md., included members of denominational conferences from the Northeast.
Elizabeth Stroud, an assistant pastor in Germantown, Pa., was defrocked in December 2004 for announcing to her congregation that she was in a same-sex partnership.
Stroud appealed the decision to the church’s Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, the same panel that heard Schaefer’s appeal, and she won. However, her appeal decision was challenged, and she lost in the Judicial Committee.
Counsel for Schaefer, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued that his defrocking was based on theoretical rather than actual behavior.
“The church is not at liberty to add a penalty based on what a person may or may not do,” Campbell said, according to the United Methodist News service. “The act of marrying his son was the only thing he was on trial for.”
Campbell called the “mix and match” penalties “an egregious error in church law.”
The counsel for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, countered that the 30-day suspension was a “period of grace for Rev. Schaefer to discern his motivations,” according to the Associated Press.
“This is no minor thing,” Fisher said. “Schaefer stated he won’t abide by the [United Methodist Book of] Discipline, and demonstrated it by his unwillingness to obey the trial court.”
Carcaño said that if Schaefer officiates at another same-sex marriage and a complaint is filed against him in her conference, she will have to comply with church procedures. However, she said she did not know of any complaints filed against clergy in the California conference for presiding over same-sex marriages.
In the six months since his trial and defrocking, Schaefer has become a symbol of the movement to change the United Methodist Church’s policy on homosexuality. He has spoken at more than 50 events, churches and colleges and received several awards, including recognition from the Massachusetts governor and the Pennsylvania Education Assn.
The United Methodist Church had nearly 7.4 million U.S. members in 2012. It accepts gay and lesbian members, but rejects same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy and ministers, calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” according to its website.
The United Methodist General Conference is the only entity that can change church policy and lawbook language. At the 2012 conference, 69% of the global conference delegates rejected a proposal to eliminate the “incompatible” statement and replace it with language acknowledging differing opinions on gay issues within the church. The next meeting will be in 2016.
Since then, 15 regional conferences in the U.S. have passed resolutions in support of same-sex marriage.
In addition, since Schaefer’s defrocking in December, several complaints against clergy relating to the church’s homosexuality policy have been dropped.
In February, two pastors from Washington state, the Rev. Cheryl Fear and the Rev. Gordon Hutchins, received only 24-hour suspensions without pay for officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies.
In March, the trial of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired dean of the Yale Divinity School, was dropped. Ogletree presided over his son’s same-sex marriage in New York City in 2012.
In May, complaints against the Rev. Sara Tweedy of New York, who faced trial for being married to another woman, were also dropped.
Schaefer said Tuesday’s decision was a message from the church to the LGBT community.
“The longer I waited for the decision, the more pessimistic I grew,” he said. “But I won. It’s a message from the church that signals change.”
John Lomperis, United Methodist director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said he didn’t believe the Schaefer ruling foreshadowed a greater change in the church’s policy toward homosexuality. “This was not an official body saying the church does not have these standards,” Lomperis said.
In the U.S. there may be a movement toward inclusion of the LGBT community, but “our church is a global church,” he said. According to church statistics, roughly 60% of the United Methodist Church’s membership is from the U.S. Nearly 40% is from Africa, “where homosexuality is still taboo,” Lomperis said.
“Fundamentally, this is a profound crisis of identity,” he said. “And we’re risking our church unity for it.”