A United Methodist bishop who oversees the pastor suspended for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding issued differing statements on the issue in a matter of hours, giving an unusual behind-the-scenes look at the sensitivity surrounding the case.
A church jury last month told the Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., to appear this Thursday before a clergy board and tell them if he can uphold the Methodist book of doctrine “in its entirety,” or else turn over his credentials.
At a news conference Monday, Schaefer said he can’t agree to uphold the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which he said contains “discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters.” He also said that he does not plan to surrender his credentials and vowed to try to remain in the Methodist Church as an advocate for gay equality.
Schaefer’s bishop released a statement Monday that seemed empathetic to Schaefer’s characterization of the Book of Discipline.
“Several statements in our Book of Discipline are discriminatory (forbidding ordination of homosexual persons, forbidding the performing of same-gender marriages and considering the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching). There appear to be contradictions between the many affirming statements (mentioned earlier) and these statements. This has led to confusion by many from the outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouth,” read part of the statement from Peggy A. Johnson, bishop of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, which includes some 900 churches around the greater Philadelphia area.
By the end of the day, however, Johnson posted a revised statement on her blog with different language.
“Several statements in our Book of Discipline may seem discriminatory if construed as prohibitions against persons rather than practices that the church has found objectionable. Some may see these prohibitions as contradictory to the many affirming statements about the rights and sanctity of all people. The Discipline is intended to be clear and fair, although admittedly, it is not a perfect document.”
The second statement also changed the language around her views on church trials. The the statement said:
“Church trials around the chargeable offenses that relate to the LGTB community are not helpful. They use time, resources, and energy that could be better used for the ministry of the church. I will continue to try in every way, as far as it depends on me, to not have church trials.”
On her blog Johnson wrote essentially the same thing, but added this final clause: “but as a bishop of the church, I must uphold my vow to follow the due process mandated by our Book of Discipline.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Johnson’s office said she regretted the changes and wanted to stick with the first version:
“Bishop Johnson has reconsidered the changes and wishes to withdraw the revised version, making the original statement — herewith attached — the official statement from her office.”
The second version was removed from her blog Tuesday.
Conference spokesman John Coleman said the bishop wouldn’t speak further about the wording changes but noted “this is the strongest statement I think she’s made.”
Schaefer Tuesday called Johnson “courageous.”
“The very Bishop under whose episcopacy I was found guilty of violating a law of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, now calls this same law discriminatory!” Schaefer said. “She is now stepping up to be the leader we asked her to be. I am so proud of her.”
Schaefer still seems likely to lose his credentials Thursday when he appears before the region’s Board of Ordained Ministry. If the pastor tells the board he won’t abide by the jury’s penalty — which he said Monday he won’t — “he will automatically be withdrawn from ministerial office,” Coleman said.
Coleman said he believed Schaefer can appeal the jury’s penalty to a Supreme Court-like United Methodist body, but he wasn’t clear of the time frame for doing so. Schaefer has said in the past he might consider an appeal if that is allowed.
Johnson’s letter was a response to one from 44 clergy in the conference asking her “to take a stand.” The clergy asked her, among other things, to “acknowledge that some statements in the Book of Discipline are discriminatory and that we need to engage in a process of discernment, prayer and change.”