By Kathy L. Gilbert
PHILADELPHIA (UMNS)—At a news conference at Arch Street United Methodist Church Dec. 16, the Rev. Frank Schaefer said he will not surrender his clergy credentials and intends to continue to be an outspoken advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Schaefer is at the end of his 30-day suspension from ministry after a church trial Nov. 18-19 found him guilty of violating his vows as an ordained United Methodist elder when he officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding in 2007 and disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.
The trial court of 13 ordained United Methodist clergy said that at the end of the suspension Schaefer had to pledge to follow the United Methodist Book of Discipline “in its entirety” or surrender his credentials.
Schaefer said he would not voluntarily surrender his ordination credentials when he meets with the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference board of ordained ministry on Dec. 19.
The conference board of ordained ministry has called a special closed meeting to hear Schaefer’s decision. Because the meeting is private, Schaefer said he called the news conference so the public could hear his decision.
Schaefer said he is putting the pressure back on the conference to defrock him.
“I cannot uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirely because of its discriminatory laws; I will also not voluntarily surrender my credentials,” he said. “I would feel I had abandoned those who have advocated for me; I would feel I would be abandoning my calling.
Schaefer said he has received hundreds of letters, emails, Facebook messages and phone calls from people across the country pleading with him not to surrender his credentials. Three of those phone calls came from bishops, he said.
Schaefer said his ordination was a “holy moment between me and God and the church.
“I just can’t surrender my credentials — I know it sounds rebellious, but it isn’t. I have to do what God wants me to do.”
Schaefer and United Methodist clergy from the Philadelphia area presented a letter to Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference asking her to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the church.
“We need you to boldly lead us as our bishop in our advocacy. … We are asking you to take a stand.” The letter asks the bishop to affirm LGBT persons are people of sacred worth; acknowledge some statements in the denomination’s lawbook are discriminatory and to refrain from church trials during this time of prayer and discernment.
Johnson received the letter and acknowledged Schaefer is at the end of his 30-day suspension. “We are in a time of turmoil over differences in opinion and theology with regard to human sexuality,” Johnson told United Methodist News Service.
“This has been extremely painful and difficult for me personally and as your bishop I am saddened by the pain that people have experienced on all levels. I ask that we find a way to forgive each other, like Nelson Mandela gave witness to in South Africa. I apologize for the pain my leadership has caused and I forgive all who have wronged me.”
In her response to the open letter Johnson asked the more than 40 clergy who signed the letter to “intentionally work to build relationships with those, who are Christians like yourself, who believe differently than you do theologically.”
She also asked the clergy signing the letter to “acknowledge that there is pain and hurt on both sides of this house.”
She said she agrees there seems to contradictions in the church’s law book. “This has led to confusion by many from outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouth.”
She also agreed that church trials around the chargeable offenses that relate to the LGBT community are not helpful.
“I will commit to continuing to call the church to its main mission: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, making disciples and transforming the world through the power of the spirit.”* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470.