By Kathy L. Gilbert*
The Rev. Frank Schaefer will go before a church trial on Nov. 18 for performing the same-sex wedding of his son, but he is going with the support of more than 30 of his fellow United Methodist pastors who also plan to violate the same church law.
The pastors say they will participate in the wedding of a same-sex couple some time before the start of Schaefer’s trial. The gender, identity and date of the ceremony is not being disclosed to protect the privacy of the couple.
Since 1972, The United Methodist Church has said, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Only General Conference can determine the denomination’s position. The 2012 United Methodist General Conference retained that language and rejected a resolution that stated the church disagrees on sexuality. The next General Conference, which meets every four years and sets the laws for the denomination, will be in 2016.
The denomination’s Book of Discipline also forbids United Methodist clergy from performing same-sex unions, and it bars the performance of such unions in United Methodist church sanctuaries.
Schaefer learned of the pastors’ plan at a meeting Oct. 17 at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Arch Street is a Reconciling Congregation, and member of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that advocates for the denomination’s greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“I addressed them and thanked them for standing up for me and the LBGTQ community,” Schaefer said. “We sang hymns, we prayed … it was very touching. I was so moved that men and women, young and old, retired and active clergy were all willing to put their careers, their orders of ordination on the line.”
The Rev. David Brown, a deacon on staff at Arch Street, said the pastors who will officiate at the wedding hope to “continue to move the denomination’s affirmation of these members (LBGTQ) of our faith community.”
Brown said it is difficult to know what The United Methodist Church’s reaction will be to the action.
“Our actions to support him are more powerful than any words we can offer. We hope our support provides a powerful illustration of how we affirm what Rev. Schaefer did as a father and pastor of a congregation that should welcome all.”
Planning a defense
Schaefer officiated at his son’s wedding in 2007. A member of his congregation at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., filed a complaint against him one month before the statute of limitations ran out.
His son had confided to his father and mother that he had contemplated suicide because he thought the messages he got from the church and culture made him feel something was wrong with him.
Schaefer said other paragraphs of the denomination’s law book speak of the sacred worth of all people and speak of teens who are struggling with their sexual identity as needing special care.
“That is the story of my son,” he said. “We are hoping we can make an argument that I may have violated some paragraphs but what about other paragraphs?
“We have a number of expert witnesses lined up, and hopefully they (will) be allowed to testify that there are some times in ministry when a pastor has to obey one part of the Discipline at the expense of another.”
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus, and has been following the case.
“Sadly, our church is once again being led down the path of a costly and divisive trial by a pastor who chose to disregard the prayerful and consistent teaching of our church that Christian marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman,” he said. “As a father, I share Rev. Schaefer’s desire to affirm his son, but there are ways of doing so that do not require a pastor to break the Discipline and the covenant that all United Methodist pastors agree to uphold.
“The plan for a joint same-sex union service represents an escalation in the move to disregard our United Methodist Discipline, portraying a church that is hopelessly divided. Those who could not convince the church of the rightness of their cause are now attempting to impose their will through disobedience and pressure tactics. This approach is a slap in the face to all who uphold 2,000 years of Christian moral teaching. Such tactics call into question whether The United Methodist Church can remain together.”
The trial will take place at Camp Innabah, Pa. Retired Bishop Alfred Gwinn will preside over the case. Bishop Peggy Johnson is episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania area. The prosecutor will be Christopher Fisher, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference and director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa.
“The complaint is confidential under our church process, and I am not at liberty to provide any comment,” Johnson said. “I am in prayer for all involved in this process, and I urge everyone to join me in lifting up in prayer each of the persons involved.”
Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert will officiate at the same-sex wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince in Birmingham on Oct. 26.
“When our 2012 General Conference failed to do the right thing by removing such derogatory and hurtful language from our Book of Discipline, I was moved by the Spirit to speak a word of hope to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers at every level of the life of our church and society,” Talbert said in a statement about why he is officiating at the wedding.
Their plans prompted the episcopal leader of the area, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, to issue a statement asking Talbert not to come to Alabama to disobey church law. She said she fears the distraction of the wedding will take focus away from the ministries going on in North Alabama United Methodist churches, such as feeding the hungry, serving in ministry with the poor and welcoming all people to worship together.
“As a bishop of The United Methodist Church, I took a vow to abide by and uphold the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I am also committed to continuing to focus those I lead on our mission, which is broader than any one issue. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Three other United Methodist elders are facing complaints — all in the state of New York.
A complaint was filed against the Rev. Stephen Heiss, pastor of Tabernacle United Methodist Church, Binghamton, N.Y., for officiating at his daughter’s same-sex union.
In a letter to Bishop Mark J. Webb, episcopal leader of the Upper New York Conference, Heiss said he has officiated at several other same-sex unions and plans to officiate at a future wedding for two women.
A statement was issued from the episcopal office in July, and Heiss and Webb met to discuss the issue in August. A second meeting took place Sept. 20, and Webb extended the process for another 30 days.
In October 2012, the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder, officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son. Some clergy in the New York Annual Conference filed a complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times.
The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy is also facing a formal complaint in the New York Conference that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian.
A place at the table
Schaefer said he was struck by a prayer from a gay person at the Arch Street church meeting who said, ‘Lord, I am tired of fighting for a place in the pew, for a place at your table.’
“I wondered why do they even still try? But they want to be in the church, they want to be at the Lord’s table, they want to be included.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.