Can Methodist pastor defrocked for officiating at gay son’s wedding reclaim his credentials?

Frank Schaefer, who lost his credentials as a United Methodist pastor after officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, appealed his punishment Friday to a church board, saying Methodist doctrine is written broadly and thus can be open to interpretation.

A decision was expected Saturday but could take up to a few weeks.

Schaefer, a longtime pastor in rural Eastern Pennsylvania, was defrocked in December after a highly publicized church trial the month before on the charge that he had violated Methodist rules — called the Book of Discipline — that explicitly ban same-sex weddings.

The jury of other United Methodist pastors found him guilty of performing the wedding a few years earlier and suspended him as a pastor for 30 days. “If at the end of 30 days, Rev. Schaefer has determined he cannot uphold the Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials,” his penalty read.

On Friday, a panel of the United Methodist Church Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Committee on Appeals met at the BWI Airport Marriott in Linthicum, Md., and heard his case.

At his November trial, Schaefer told an emotional story of his gay son’s struggle with sexuality — Schaefer has two other gay children as well — and said he believes gays and lesbians should be treated equally in the church and in society.

On Friday, his counsel made a more legal argument, saying Methodist law forbids imposing a penalty based on “what a pastor may intend to do in the future.”

But it also, according to a brief prepared for the hearing, reflected a broader argument about how United Methodists are to weigh parts of scripture and doctrine that some see as conflicting. Methodist doctrine says gays and lesbians “are individuals of sacred worth” and also bans openly gay clergy and same-gender weddings.

Schaefer’s appeal brief said no United Methodist could honestly say they follow “the entirety” of the faith’s complicated, thick rule book.

“The meaning of uphold The Discipline in its entirety is so broad and so vague that there is not a pastor . . . who can honestly claim to have accomplished such an intention,” the brief read. “Nowhere in its verdict does the trial court define what it means by the phrase uphold The Discipline in its entirety. This is a new phrase that is not used in The Discipline or defined by the court. Would this include, for example, the prohibition in the General Rules against ‘laying up treasure on earth?’ Would Rev. Schaefer be expected to divest himself from the Social Security program and the pension program of The United Methodist Church? Would it mean that he must remove his wedding ring because of the prohibition in those same Rules against wearing gold?”

E-mails to the clergy representing the United Methodist Church were not returned Friday.

The 12.5 million-person global United Methodist Church is watching the Schaefer case closely, as the denomination appears to be at a tipping point between traditionalists — mostly in Asia and Africa — and more progressive Christians, mostly in the West, who want change. Hundreds of U.S. pastors earlier this month proposed having something like a local option for churches in order to avoid a denominational split.

If Schaefer is reinstated, it will have symbolic and practical implications.

A rebel United Methodist bishop in California already offered to hire him as a pastor — despite his defrocking in Eastern Pennsylvania — and Schaefer has said he is likely to take the position and move with his wife. His former church, Zion United Methodist of Iona, has already hired another pastor to replace him. But if he is reinstated he will receive back pay and benefits he lost when he was defrocked in December.

Right now, unless he is reinstated, his position in California would be at a somewhat lower level because he would be considered not-yet-ordained.

Primarily, if the penalty is lightened or reversed it would be a symbolic victory for United Methodists who want more room for diversity on the topic of human sexuality.

“It would be a strong statement; it would be signaling a change,” Schaefer said Friday evening.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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