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Topics In the News
 
Methodist Kangaroo Court Convicts Pastor
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 11/20/13
Last updated on: 11/20/13
 
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Rev. Frank Schaefer.

On November 18, 2013, Reverend Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pennsylvania was convicted for having performed the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim Schaefer, in 2007 and for having violated the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church. He was assessed a penalty of a 30-day suspension and told that if he does not agree to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials. Although conservatives within the bitterly divided denomination may see the conviction as a victory, the "show trial" has had the effect of radicalizing many members of the church, including Schaefer himself.

The jury's sentence is too clever by half. In effect, it defrocks Schaefer, but makes it seem as though the decision is his, not theirs. During the penalty phase of the trial, Schaefer made it clear that he would not retreat. As the Associated Press reports, he told the court, "I cannot go back to being silent. I am now an advocate for LGBT people in the world and in the church." Indeed, he could have avoided the trial entirely by promising not to perform any other same-sex weddings, but he steadfastly refused to make such a declaration.

Schaefer added that the church "needs to stop judging people based on their sexual orientation. We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians."

After the jury pronounced its sentence, Schaefer's supporters began overturning chairs in the courtroom, symbolizing the biblical story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, and held an impromptu communion service. A few supporters scuffled briefly with the church's trial staff.

The effect of this wholly unnecessary proceeding will be to hasten the day at which the UMC will either split into two different denominations or change its discriminatory treatment of glbtq people.

The United Methodist Church is the most discriminatory of the mainline Christian denominations. The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all moved toward inclusion and acceptance, while the UMC has been resistant to change.

However, UMC ministers and churches are increasingly resorting to civil disobedience in order to protest discrimination within the denomination. For example, earlier this month, in solidarity with Schaefer and several other ministers who are facing charges for performing same-sex marriages, more than 40 UMC ministers participated in a same-sex wedding and announced their intention to perform more weddings for gay and lesbian parishioners; at the same time, a dozen congregations agreed to allow same-sex weddings to be performed in their sanctuaries despite the prohibition by the Book of Discipline.

On October 26, 2013, retired United Methodist Church Bishop Melvin Talbert presided over the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw in Birmingham, Alabama. Prince and Openshaw are members of the United Methodist Church, but their local bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, refused to allow a minister under her jurisdiction to perform the ceremony. In response, Bishop Talbert volunteered his services, an offer that was condemned by the Executive Council of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

In officiating at the Prince-Openshaw wedding, Bishop Talbert became the first UMC bishop to publicly perform a marriage for a same-sex couple.

"All my life I have been an outspoken person for justice. I just see this as a continuing effort on my part to be faithful to the gospel, to speak truth and to do it out of love," Talbert said in a statement explaining his decision. "It is no more than what I did in 1960 when I sat in at a lunch counter and refused to obey the unjust law of segregation. It's the same. The principle is the same."

Pending is the trial of Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist Church clergyman and former Dean of Yale Divinity School, who officiated at his son's wedding to a man. The minister, who is a distinguished academic and theologian, has been charged with violating the denomination's Book of Discipline when he conducted the wedding of his son Thomas Rimbey Ogletree to Nicholas W. Haddad at the Yale Club in New York on October 20, 2012. A wedding announcement in the New York Times prompted a group of conservative ministers to file a complaint.

Like Bishop Talbert, Ogletree was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. His first civil disobedience arrest was at a segregated lunch counter with African-American colleagues, including Congressman John Lewis.

As Ogletree explained, "My experiences in the Civil Rights movement have illumined my responses to what I perceive to be unjust disciplinary rules in the United Methodist Church, especially rules that denied my right to officiate at my own son's wedding. As a heterosexual, married clergyman I have a unique opportunity and obligation to challenge the inequitable treatment of gay and lesbian persons, both in church practices and also in the wider society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us in his 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' 'One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.'"

The UMC will continue to be roiled by controversy over its discriminatory policies toward homosexuality coupled with its schizophrenic attempt to appear welcoming to all.

In 2001, intent on reversing years of declining membership and countering a perception of conservative religious denominations as close-minded and intolerant, the United Methodist Church launched an advertising campaign, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." The campaign was intended to suggest that Methodists (unlike, say, Southern Baptists) welcome a diverse membership, including glbtq people.

For a while, the campaign was very successful, but when in a highly publicized case a gay man was denied membership in the denomination because of his homosexuality, many people came to regard the denomination's slogan as laughable. It was even mocked by an ad for another, more truly accepting denomination, the United Church of Christ.

The contradictions in the policies of the United Methodist Church toward homosexuality reveal uncertainty, inconsistency, and, most damningly, hypocrisy.

The denomination's website contains a number of resolutions passed by its various committees and conferences, some of which extend welcome to all people and affirm their sacred worth. The denomination has even passed resolutions opposing homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Those resolutions, however, do not seem to apply to the denomination itself. The church's "Book of Discipline," for example, pointedly declares, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." Much of the activism within the denomination is directed at eliminating this statement.

The church also forbids the ordination of practicing homosexuals: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

And, of course, the "Book of Discipline" declares that "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

In addition, the denomination forbids the use of United Methodist funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

Given the deep divisions within the UMC on the issue of homosexuality, and especially the insistence by conservatives on litigating those differences in kangaroo courts, it is difficult to see how the denomination can maintain even the semblance of unity much longer.

ABC News video below reported on the beginning of Rev. Schaefer's trial.

 
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