By Kathy L. Gilbert*
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor asked to surrender his ministerial credentials, is going right back in the pulpit Dec. 22 to preach at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. Schaefer had his ministerial credentials taken from him by the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference Dec. 19. He immediately filed for an appeal.
Foundry is one of several churches that have asked him to speak at worship services, and Schaefer is receiving requests to lecture at universities and be on panels to talk about equality for LBGT people.
The Rev. Dean Snyder, pastor of Foundry, has led national efforts to change the language in the Book of Discipline. He supported Schaefer throughout the trial, sentencing and stripping of Schaefer’s ministerial credentials.
Schaefer was found guilty during a church trial Nov. 18-19 of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s wedding to another man in 2007. He was appointed to Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, Pa., at the time.
The conference’s board of ordained ministry made the decision to follow through with a church trial’s penalty to ask Schaefer to surrender his credentials if he cannot uphold the denomination’s lawbook “in its entirety.”
Schaefer refuses to surrender his credentials. Schaefer and his legal counsel announced the plans for an appeal in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
“I really don’t think they have the power to take them because the trial court said it was up to me to give them up,” he said.
The next step will be for the appeal to go to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals.
According to the General Council on Finance and Administration “the committee on appeals’ examination is limited to determining whether or not the weight of the evidence sustains the conviction and whether or not errors were committed that effectively vitiate the conviction. The decision made here is essentially final, aside from a narrow right to appeal to the Judicial Council on the basis of procedural errors.”
Schaefer’s fate was announced on the same day New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize same-sex marriage. With the changing laws have come more challenges to The United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.
The Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference, will likely face a church trial for officiating at the same-sex ceremony of his daughter in 2002 and more such unions since New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.
Two other United Methodist clergy have had formal complaints filed against them and could face trials in 2014.
The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son in 2012. Some clergy filed the complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times.
The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, also in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian, a chargeable offense under church law.
In Dec. 2004, Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud lost her ministerial credentials in a church trial in the same conference as Schaefer. At that time she also expressed hope for The United Methodist Church.
The former Philadelphia clergywoman, whose sexual orientation led to a Dec. 2 2004, guilty verdict by a church trial court, had publicly acknowledged that she was living in a committed relationship with another woman. She was found to have violated the church’s law book, which forbids the participation of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” in the ordained ministry.
On April 29, 2005 the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals set aside the trial court’s verdict and penalty because of legal errors and reinstated Stroud to clergy standing. However in October 2005, the church’s Judicial Council upheld the removal of her credentials.
The trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergywoman in Wisconsin, was held June 21-23, 2011. DeLong, a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference initiated the case in 2009 when she agreed to officiate at the union of a lesbian couple. That same year, she registered with her partner of nearly 16 years under Wisconsin’s Domestic Partnership Law. She reported both actions to the annual conference.
DeLong was charged with violating The United Methodist Church’s ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and the prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions.
The trial court acquitted her of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by a vote of 12-1. The same panel unanimously found her guilty of violating the prohibition against conducting ceremonies celebrating same-gender unions. The jury voted 9-4 to suspend DeLong from her ministerial functions for 20 days beginning July 1, 2011.
Schaefer was found guilty by a trial court of fellow ordained clergy on Nov. 19 of violating the church’s law against clergy by performing the same-sex wedding ceremony for his son and another man. The trial court penalty was to suspend him for 30 days to discern and decide if he could uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline in its entirety.
“Rev. Schaefer met with the board of ordained ministry today and declared that he is not willing or able to uphold the laws of the Book of Discipline in its entirety in the future as required by the trial court’s verdict,” Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the conference, said Thursday.
Johnson said when asked to surrender his credentials, Schaefer refused to do so. The board then deemed his credentials surrendered, she said.
At a news conference at Arch Street United Methodist Church Dec. 16, Schaefer said, “I cannot uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline in its entirety. In fact I don’t believe anyone can.”
Schaefer said he would not voluntarily surrender his ordination credentials because he feels called to represent, minister and advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
In an interview with United Methodist News Service after Schaefer’s news conference Dec. 16, Johnson said, “My overall feeling is that this is very sad. I can’t believe we have been on this journey for nothing; somewhere God is going to use all the hearts and efforts for some good purpose down the line. This is the God we serve. It is Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We got the Good Friday, so come on Easter. I know it is Christmas but we are Easter people.”
Schaefer and 44 Philadelphia United Methodist pastors signed a letter they sent to Johnson asking her to “lead us boldly” as an advocate for all LBGT members. The clergy members asked her to acknowledge that “some statements in our Book of Discipline are discriminatory and that we need a time to engage in a process of discernment, prayer and change.”
Johnson replied to that letter by saying “a good many statements in our Book of Discipline are positive and nondiscriminatory.” She also said, however, that several statements are discriminatory.
In a statement Dec. 19, she said, “As one church of Jesus Christ, we must commit ourselves to engage in ongoing prayer and reflection, sensitive, peaceful dialogue and diligent study, so that we can better understand the needs and concerns of LGBT members and their broader community and so that we can more effectively and lovingly minister to all people in the name of Christ.”
Schaefer stated it was his hope he would be allowed to keep his credentials so he could be a voice for the LGBT community in The United Methodist Church.
“As long as there is a hope for an appeal, a reversal, I will stay with The United Methodist Church,” Schaefer said. “I will actually have to join a local church now because I am currently finding myself without a spiritual home. As a minister your membership comes through the conference and if they take your credentials then you are really not a member of The United Methodist Church.”
In an interview with United Methodist News Service, Dec. 15, Brigitte Schaefer and their daughter, Debbie, talked about one more hopeful thing for the family.
“If his credentials are taken away it will be the first time in 20 years we can all be together for Christmas Eve. Dad won’t have to work,” Debbie said.
The Schaefers have four children, Tim, 30, Debbie, 28, Kevin, 23 and Pascal, 19.
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470.