SPRING CITY, Pa. —A jury of clergy Tuesday night suspended for 30 days a pastor who officiated at the wedding of his gay son, telling him he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.
The dozens of gay and lesbian advocates in the audience threw their folding chairs on the floor in protest after the announcement and began singing hymns and performing Communion in the middle of the gym that had been used as a courtroom.
“This is an effort to push out people who are in ministry with gay and lesbian people. It’s very sad,” said the Rev. Dean Snyder, the longtime pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont Circle, who came from Washington with 10 congregants. Snyder has performed more than 20 same-sex weddings but has never had a complaint filed against him.
Gay advocates across the country lit up Twitter with anger at the ruling, which many saw as a “de facto defrocking,” but the Rev. Frank Schaefer and some members of his congregation, a small country church in Lebanon, said the jury could have removed him immediately. The call for him to follow the rules “in their entirety” might give him a chance to argue again that he believes he is, they suggested.
“I’m so relieved not to lose him. It’s up to him. They didn’t strip him of his credentials,” said Clydette Overturf, a pastoral assistant at Schaefer’s Zion United Methodist Church.
Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of a traditional group of Methodists who advised the church counsel in this case, said he was pleased with the penalty and did not consider it ambiguous.
“I think it registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place. At the same time gives a time of grace for Reverend Schaefer to reconsider and potentially change his mind,” Lambrecht said.
The jury that convicted Schaefer the night before of performing the 2007 wedding in violation of Methodist rules sentenced him to a 30-day suspension. In that period, he was to “discern his newly-discovered ministry to gay and lesbian people,” the penalty given Tuesday night said.
During the trial, Schaefer emphasized that he felt God calling him to minister openly for gay equality and that he would not change his path.
On the witness stand Tuesday, he took a rainbow stole out of his pocket and draped it around him. Around his neck was a silver crucifix.
After the penalty was announced, Schaefer said he would be open to doing a same-sex wedding even during his 30-day suspension and that one could see the penalty as an eventual defrocking. But he was still hopeful that there could be dialogue, he said. “This is a great opportunity to engage in more discussion,” he said.
During testimony Tuesday, Schaefer said he would “not go back to being a silent supporter” of gay people. Three of his four children are gay. Schaefer said he has received a flood of emotional mail from gay men and lesbians since news of the wedding and his impending trial began to spread.
“I am a minister. I have to minister to those who hurt,” he had said on the witness stand.
His words triggered muffled cries from some of the 200 people in the audience, most of them advocates for gay equality. It also elicited surprise from the church counsel team that argued that Schaefer must be punished for knowingly violating church rules.
“Did anyone else just hear what happened here a few minutes ago?” Jon Boger, the Navy lieutenant commander whose complaint against Schaefer launched the trial at a rural Methodist retreat camp, said on the stand. “He just openly rebuked the United Methodist Church and its discipline rules. . . . He should no longer be in service.”
The case is the first of what could be several trials as Methodist ministers who have been quietly conducting same-gender weddings become more bold, in part because legal same-sex marriage has led more of their gay congregants to want to marry. Experts said that the denomination may be at a tipping point and that the verdict in the Schaefer case would be closely watched. Methodists, like much of American Christianity, are divided over Biblical authority and interpretation.
“We are really standing on a precipice, and [this verdict] will set the tone,” said Scott Campbell, a Harvard University chaplain who is advising several of the five pastors officials are considering disciplining over issues concerning sexuality.
If either wing of the church considers the penalty too extreme — too harsh or too lenient — it could push the denomination further toward a split, Campbell said. “I’m hearing more talk of schism than I’ve heard in 42 years in the church.”
While Monday was about the nuts and bolts of what happened at Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, many of Tuesday’s witnesses made a case for two different concepts of Christianity: one focused on preserving the rules that govern Methodism, the other prioritizing inclusion.
“We are a community that lives by rules together, and holding people accountable for violating the discipline” is essential, Leicester Longden, evangelism professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary, testified via live video.
But the Rev. Robert Coombe, Schaefer’s counsel, asked: Doesn’t institutional religion need to change along with the times.
“It doesn’t do it because society demands it,” Longden replied. “It’s not just an echo of society.”
During questioning on Tuesday, counsel for both sides — both of them Methodist pastors — tried during questioning Tuesday to present opposite views of what caused Zion United Methodist Church. Schaefer’s side tried to emphasize that traditional members were upset over the pastor’s decision to remove a longtime choir director, while the church side tried to argue that Schaefer’s violation of the Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline brought the tension in this small church to a new level.
Christina Watson, who was overseeing Christian education at the church, broke out in tears as she described how jarring it was to hear Schaefer tell her in his office as they planned lessons that the Book of Discipline “was just guidelines, that it didn’t have to be followed. I didn’t understand that.” She took her family out of the church this fall.
The Rev. James Todd, a regional Methodist leader brought in this year to help Zion, called the situation at Zion “complex.” Since spring, half the church congregation of about 200 has left — some Schaefer supporters, some critics, others just tired of the discord.
Unlike a typical civil trial, many people in the audience were clergy, as were all the members of counsel teams, the jury and even some of the press from Methodist and gay publications.
Also testifying was Tim Schaefer, who remarked that he had come to the Camp Innabah retreat as a boy to learn to swim and was now there for the trial. “I don’t know what we’re teaching our kids in what we’re doing here,” he said. “But I’ll leave it at that.”