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Petitioners ask bishop to end clergy trials

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

PHILADELPHIA (UMNS) — Two days after a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty of violating the denomination’s lawbook for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, representatives of Faithful America presented United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson with a petition signed by more than 19,000 calling for an end to clergy trials.

It was learned, however, during the presentation of the petition that a new “supervisory action” has been started against another United Methodist pastor.

Bishop Peggy Johnson holds petitions presented by Faithful America. (From left) Rev. James Todd, Johnson and Karen Wiseman. Photo by John Coleman/Eastern Pa. Conference.

Bishop Peggy Johnson holds petitions presented by Faithful America. (From left) Rev. James Todd, Johnson and Karen Wiseman. Photo by John Coleman/Eastern Pa. Conference.

On Nov. 9, more than 50 United Methodist clergy participated in the same sex wedding of Richard Kevin Taylor and William Robert Gatewood at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

Johnson was asked if she was considering charges against those pastors and she said a “supervisory action” had been started on one of the clergy who had participated. She did not identify the pastor, and, under church law cannot make public the name.

Faithful America is a non-denominational, online community that describes itself as dedicated to “reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.” One of Faithful America’s campaigns is called “Don’t put pastors on trial for performing gay weddings.”

Johnson was asked to receive the petitions, according to John Coleman, communications director for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference, who supplied the information about the presentation.

“Bishop Peggy Johnson, please join with the growing number of United Methodists who are obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and disregarding the church’s immoral anti-gay rules. Don’t allow any more trials for pastors who officiate at gay weddings,” the petition read.

Johnson, episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania Area where the trial took place, told the more than 30 gathered in the parking lot outside of the conference office that she did all she could to avoid a church trial but her efforts failed, Coleman said.

Ruth Ann “Bunnie” Bryant, a member of Union United Methodist Church in Havertown, Pa., and the Rev. Karen Wiseman, professor at Lancaster (Penn.) Seminary, presented the petition to Johnson. Richard Kirk, conference co-chair of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus of The United Methodist Church, also spoke.

Schaefer was given a 30-day suspension by the jury in his church trial and told that if he can’t uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety he must surrender his credentials.

Schaefer was found guilty of violating the church’s law against pastors performing same-sex unions and of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. He acknowledged having performed the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim, in 2007.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer (left) and his son Tim stand together during the Nov. 18 church trial.  A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer (left) and his son Tim stand together during the Nov. 18 church trial. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

The 30 day-suspension will cover both convictions, the jury said. Schaefer also is to be monitored by his district superintendent and must meet with the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry during the suspension period.

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 another wedding for two women.

Heiss has been receiving letters of support on a blog, letters to the bishop, started in early September. As of Sept. 23, 85 letters have been written, several from members of Tabernacle United Methodist Church.

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 (regional) 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.

 

* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470