Reverend Frank Schaefer
PENNSYLVANIA – The Rev. Frank Schaefer affirmed his views on gay rights in 2000, when he learned that his son, Tim, was gay.
As a pastor’s son, the then 18-year-old high school senior was so anguished by the thought that he might be shunned by his parents and church community, he contemplated suicide.
But Schaefer and his wife, abiding by what they considered Christian teachings, embraced their son without qualification.
Then in 2006, Tim asked his father to preside over his marriage to his boyfriend.
For Schaefer, pastor at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, the decision was both difficult and easy. The church’s Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, opposes same-gender marriage.
But Schaefer says that, like the Bible, his church’s book of laws offers contradictions. While the book states that all people are of sacred worth, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Schaefer said he was answering to a higher law when he agreed to marry his son and his partner: “We just love him so much it was an honor to be asked. Had I said no to him, it would have negated all the affirmations we gave him for all those year…that we believe you are just as worthy and precious in God’s sight as anybody else.”
Schaefer performed the ceremony in Massachusetts, which had recently legalized gay marriage.
This spring, 26 days before the church’s statute of limitations on breaches of the Discipline would have expired, one of his congregants filed a complaint against him.
Schaefer must now stand trial and prove to a jury of peers and a bishop presiding as judge that what he did conforms to church teachings.
According to United Methodist law, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. The church bans clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
If the jury from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference finds him guilty, Schaefer faces a potential loss of ordination credentials.
“That’s the worse case scenario,” said Schaefer who returned to minister to his church after a short leave of absence.
For his defense, Schaefer said he’ll turn to his views about gay marriage.
“To me this is a human rights issue,” he said this week during an interview in his parish office. “If being of a certain sexual orientation is who you are as a person, if that is genetic, who are we to say that these persons do not have the same rights as everybody else.”
Schaefer said the issue is particularly of interest to him not only as a man of religion, but as a United Methodist minister because the Book of Discipline tells him that he is to minister to all equally, regardless of economic status, sexual orientation, race, nationality. He says the bylaws mention sexual orientation specifically.
“I’m supposed to minister to everybody,” said Schaefer, who emigrated from Germany two decades ago, and still retains a trace of an accent. “That I feel is my call.”
The United Methodist holds a worldwide General Conference every four years, at which time, it considers and amends its bylaws. Increasingly over the past 25 years, it has come under pressure to take up the gay marriage issue, but consistently, including in 2012, votes it down.
Still, the church is not without challengers. Several pastors have in recent years stood trial, accused of presiding at same-sex unions.
Schaefer is one of four pastors currently in the hot seat with church leadership for similar reasons. The three pastors are all in New York.
The most recent pastor to be convicted of performing same-sex marriages was the Rev. Amy DeLong, who in 2011 was handed an arguably convoluted conviction, underscoring the rigidity of church language.
DeLong, a lesbian who was then and still is, in a committed relationship, was found guilty of performing gay marriages. However, she was found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
During cross-examination, DeLong, who stood trial in Wisconsin, where she still lives, was asked if she had had sexual genital contact with another woman. She refused to answer.
“I had never been asked that before,” she said during a phone interview from her Wisconsin home. “I refused to answer. I said I’m a lesbian in a partnered relationship. This is a person I love who I have commit to and who has committed to me and I’m not going to answer questions about our personal relationship in a setting designed to do me harm.”
DeLong says her church, once known for being tolerant, has in recent years come under outside right-wing conservative influences. As a result, the language and rules in the Book of Discipline, she said, have become increasingly restrictive.
“They have changed who we are and how we treat people,” DeLong said.
Whereas she once thought her trial would be the last one for the denomination, DeLong says the increase in prosecution of pastors is as of a result of her peers getting bolder and taking more risks.
DeLong says support for Schaefer is strong, growing and outweighs the strength of whatever conservative element that is trying to have him defrocked.
“I think what he did is absolutely right,” said DeLong, who, while not serving a local congregation, retains her clergy credentials. “We need more people like him who are willing to risk their career and ministry. Change will come if good people decide to suspend their conscious and do the right thing. We have lot of people who believe the United Methodist Church is dead wrong about LGBT issues but few are willing to put that belief in action. Frank is willing to do that.”
Schaefer, who took a short leave of absence earlier this year, continues to work at his church.
Attendance in his congregation of 450 – which on most Sundays was about 250 – has dropped significantly.
“Initially, there was a lot of support,” Schaefer said. “Even though this is fairly conservative area, a lot of people understood this was my son. There was a lot of support expressed … also some criticism but a lot of support.”
Fellow United Methodist minister the Rev. Shellie Sterner has helped organize a concert to raise funds to cover the cost of Schaefer’s legal counsel.
Sterner hopes Schaefer’s jury rules in his favor.
“As Christians, Jesus Christ is our model and what I see in the life and teachings of Christ is a love that embraces all and that includes all,” she said. “We read the stories of Jesus. He always was concerned about the marginalized of the day, no matter what that marginalized group was.”
The church, Sterner said, needs to be a place of safety for all. When the teachings and the policy conflict, she said, it excludes people from experiencing God and fellowship.
“To the degree we put barriers in front of people or make them feel excluded, I believe we are not in step with Jesus and that’s who we say we follow,” Sterner said.
Clydette Overturf, a pastoral assistant and marriage and family therapist at Zion United Methodist, says the gay marriage debate is a cultural issue, which should not be held to the standards of the Bible. The Bible, she said, was written by different men at markedly different culturally focused points in time.
“Jesus remained silent on that issue,” she said. “I want to echo his life. I want to echo the way he treats people whether I’m your therapist, a soldier or a pastor.”
Schaefer’s trial is scheduled for Nov. 18 outside Philadelphia.
from The Patriot News