Schaefer, who a church jury last month convicted of violating Methodist doctrine, has in a few weeks become a national figure. His case has triggered a public explosion of tensions long simmering in private in the United Methodist Church, the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, over the place of gays and lesbians in church life. His small church in Lebanon, Pa., has also been divided by the dispute.
Schaefer’s credentials were formally removed Thursday after he told a clergy oversight body in Philadelphia that he could not uphold doctrine “in its entirety,” saying church teachings were contradictory and un-Christian on the treatment of gays and lesbians. They jury had given him 30 days to decide whether he could abide by the ban on clergy officiating same-sex weddings.
On Friday Bishop Minerva Carcano invited Schaefer to serve as a minister in the California-Pacific Annual Conference in the Los Angeles area. In a statement, Carcano said she was inspired by Methodist leaders in the 1960s who came to the support of clergy fighting racial discrimination.
“I believe that the time has come for we United Methodists to stand on the side of Jesus and declare in every good way that the United Methodist Church is wrong in its position on homosexuality,” Carcano wrote. “Frank Schaefer chose to stand with Jesus as he extended love and care to his gay son and his partner. We should stand with him and others who show such courage and faithfulness.”
Schaefer is appealing his conviction. Carcano cannot reinstate his full credentials, but she can offer him a license to minister, Schaefer said, adding that her offer could still be seen as a sign of rebellion. “It is defying the church,” he said.
A conservative religious group criticized both Schaefer and his supporters.
“The situation in Mr. Schaefer’s former congregation is a microcosm of how things have often gone in our denomination as a whole, “ said John Lomperis, who oversees the Methdist program at the Institute on Religon and Democracy, which advocates for traditional views in Mainline Protestantism. “A secularized, liberal faction unlovingly drives out more conservative, biblically-grounded members in order to seize power. Then when there is accountability for a church leader’s blatant wrongdoing, there is all this sympathy for the unfaithful shepherd.”
Schaefer said he is also considering an offer to become a member of Foundry United Methodist Church, a large church in the Dupont Circle area, where he is scheduled to preach Sunday. Although he had for two decades been a Methodist through his clerical credentials, Schaefer said Thursday that he is not considered a member of the denomination because he does not belong to a specific church. He is not considering a move to Washington, he said Saturday, but if he joins Foundry — to which he has been invited by Foundry’s pastor, Dean Snyder — Schaefer said he would be making clear that he is remaining in the denomination and working to change it.
“My message is an appeal to all GLBT members, as well as their friends and supporters, to remain in the United Methodist Church because we’re taking our church back. . . . We’re at a tipping point, and we can work for changes,” he said.
Schaefer said that it wouldn’t be fair to try and rejoin Zion United Methodist of Iona, his former small, rural congregation outside Philadelphia, and that he wants to join a congregation that is explicitly open to gays and lesbians. Snyder has performed more than 20 same-sex weddings but has never had a complaint filed against him, as Schaefer did.
Also Friday, John Schol, bishop of the Greater New Jersey Conference, released a seven-minute video supporting Schaefer and calling for United Methodists of different belief systems to find a way to remain a community. His eyes filled with tears as he retold the story of Schaefer’s son asking the pastor to perform his 2007 wedding, a request obviously fraught. Tim Schaefer has since divorced.
“I want to speak first to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I want you to know you are children of God, of sacred worth, and there are many in the United Methodist Church who care about you and love you deeply,” Schol said. He went on to call for an end to church trials and for people of different ideologies to work together.
“I pledge not only to work with all people, but to help us all come into the same hand, that even though we have different viewpoints and different understandings, and even though we look at things differently, we can be one church. We can all come together and work together for the mission of God.”