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Topics In the News
Rev. Schaefer Defrocked
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/20/13
Last updated on: 12/20/13
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Frank Schaefer.

On December 19, 2013, the Reverend Frank Schaefer was stripped of his credentials within the United Methodist Church for presiding at the wedding of his son and his same-sex partner in 2007. The action follows a trial conducted in November in which he was convicted for having violated the "order and discipline" of the church. When he refused to say that he would uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety and also refused to hand over his credentials, he was stripped of them.

As I observed here, the penalty handed down after the trial on November 18--a 30-day suspension and a requirement that he agree to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety--was too clever by half. It was designed to defrock Schaefer, but in a way that would make it seem as though the decision was his, not the 13-person jury who served on the kangaroo court.

Although conservatives within the bitterly divided denomination may see the conviction and expulsion of Schaefer as a victory, the "show trial" and its result will likely lead to a schism within the denomination.

As Laurie Goodstein reports in the New York Times, while the purpose of the trial and defrocking of Schaefer was to intimidate other pastors from officiating at same-sex weddings, it has instead galvanized a wave of Methodist ministers to step forward to disobey church prohibitions against marrying and ordaining openly gay people.

The church now faces an increasingly determined uprising by clergy members and laypeople who have refused to abide by the denomination's anti-gay teachings.

"After 40 years of playing nice and attempting a legislative solution, we will not wait any longer," said Matt Berryman, a former Methodist pastor who now serves as the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist gay rights group.

In Philadelphia in November, three-dozen Methodist ministers, along with clergy from other denominations, participated in a wedding for two gay men in a United Methodist Church. In New York, UMC clergy regularly post accounts on a blog of the same-sex marriages they have performed.

In October, retired UMC Bishop Melvin Talbert flew to Birmingham, Alabama to conduct a church ceremony for two gay men against the will of the local bishop.

Schaefer is hardly the first Methodist minister to be defrocked for disobeying church teachings on homosexuality. Among other UMC clergy who have been defrocked are Jimmy Creech, who was stripped of his credentials in 1999 for performing a same-sex ceremony; and Irene Elizabeth Stroud, a lesbian living with her partner, who was defrocked in 2005.

UMC's Book of Discipline not only forbids same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people, it declares that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Efforts to amend the Book of Discipline have been defeated by increasingly wide margins at the church's quadrennial conferences as delegates representing the church's growing branch in Africa have bolstered the votes of conservative Methodists in the United States, which are now likely a minority within the American branch.

It seems unlikely that a denomination as divided as the UMC can continue. The real question is how the split will be managed.

Those observing the trial were surprised when Bishop Peggy Johnson, who is Schaefer's superior and who authorized the trial, posted a note on her blog this week, saying that she believed the prohibitions on gay ordination and marriage in the Book of Discipline were "discriminatory."

The prohibitions, Bishop Johnson continued, taken together with the church's message of inclusion, "has led to confusion by many from the outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouth."

Indeed, 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. That motto--Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors--is now regarded mostly as a laughing stock.

In an interview after he was stripped of his credentials, Schaefer said that as he got into the car to go home, his wife noticed he was shaking. "For 20 years, I've served this church, and it has now put me outside," he said. "I find myself totally shunned, excluded. It just felt awful."

He said he would not consider leaving the Methodist Church for a denomination that has changed its teaching on homosexuality.

"It's not that easy when a church is your spiritual home," he said. "All my children have been baptized in the United Methodist Church. I don't know how to be a minister out of the United Methodist Church."

He said his lawyers had already filed an appeal with a judicial body akin to a church appellate court.

In the clip below, CBS Evening News reports on Schaefer's defrocking.

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