MEMPHIS — Citing procedural errors, a top United Methodist judicial council has affirmed the reinstatement of a Pennsylvania minister who was defrocked last year after he refused to neither repent for officiating a same-sex “marriage” or to relinquish his ministerial license over his rebellion against Church law.
As previously reported, Frank Schaefer, 51, who oversees Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, was found guilty in November of “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.” In 2007, he traveled to Massachusetts to officiate a ceremony between his son Tim and Tim’s homosexual partner.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline outlines that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained as ministers in the denomination. It also forbids ministers from hosting or participating in “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
Schaefer said that the knew what he was doing was against church law, but chose to proceed with the ceremony anyway.
“The love for my son took over the fear of losing my job with the United Methodist Church,” Schaefer told the Lebanon Daily News. “It was a tough decision in some sense, but I just knew I had to make it. I had to follow my heart.”
However, some in Schaefer’s church was not so supportive when they learned that their shepherd had officiated over the ceremony. One member, Jon Boger, filed a complaint with the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference just before the statute of limitations ran out, and Schaefer was ordered to stand trial.
During his church trial, Schaefer told a jury of thirteen United Methodist ministers that he would continue to advocate for homosexuality and wore a rainbow stole as a sign of his support.
“I cannot go back to being silent,” he said. “I am now an advocate for LGBT people in the world and in the Church.”
At the end of the three-day trial, Schaefer was found guilty and given the ultimatum of repenting of his actions within 30 days or turning in his credentials. As he refused to repent and would neither relinquish his ministerial license, Schaefer was consequently defrocked.
Schaefer appealed the decision, and in June, the United Methodist’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals voted 8-1 in to reinstate his credentials, citing “errors of Church law.” It also ruled that the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference must compensate Schaefer for the lost salary and benefits during the time that he had been defrocked.
Pastor Christopher Fisher, who had served as the “prosecutor” in the matter, then appealed to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court. Following review during the Council’s meeting last week in Memphis, the panel has now announced that it has decided to affirm Schaefer’s reinstatement.
While it was essentially silent on the issue of homosexuality, the Council agreed that the “penalty imposed was illegal because Church law prohibits trial courts from imposing a penalty based on what a pastor may intend to do in the future.” Among other technicalities, it concluded that the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference should not have defrocked Schaefer solely because he refused to repent, and noted that the written penalty did not warn Schaefer that he would be defrocked if he did not change his mind.
Those within the United Methodist denomination remain split on the issue of homosexuality. In an article entitled “Why Many Methodists Still Oppose Same-Sex Marriage,” John Lemperis, the Director of the UM Action program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said that the Bible is crystal clear on the matter.
“Even liberal Biblical scholars now agree that the Old and New Testaments are very clear in their moral disapproval of homosexual practice,” he wrote. “More fundamentally, Scripture paints a beautiful picture of marriage as a holy covenant of intensely intimate, self-giving community between man and woman, uniting the two most basic, equal categories of humanity.”
“We submit to Jesus as Lord,” Lemperis stated. “If He is truly Lord, then no area of our lives can be off-limits to Him. Jesus spoke strongly about the centrality of self-denial in following Him, which often means dramatic personal sacrifices, including not acting on powerful desires for things outside of God’s best for us. … Jesus and new life in Him are more than worth it.”