Frank Schaefer, a Methodist pastor who was defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding and then reinstated, can now officially keep his ordination. The church’s highest judicial body issued the ruling Monday on technical grounds.
“It pulls the United Methodist Church back from the brink of self-destruction,” Schaefer spokeswoman Dorothee Benz told International Business Times about the decision. “It gives us some hope that even while discriminatory laws are still on the books, there is some space for ministry to help LGBT people.”
Schaefer was defrocked last year after the church discovered he performed his son’s same-sex wedding in 2007. At the time, Schaefer was a pastor in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The ceremony was performed in Massachusetts, where same-sex weddings had then been legal for three years. But the ceremony was kept private until a member of his conservative congregation filed a complained in 2013.
In November 2013, Schaefer was stripped of his ministerial credentials for failing to promise he would not officiate future same-sex weddings, which are in violation of the church’s teachings. In June, a regional appeals court reinstated him -- saying the decision was not legal under the church’s laws. The Judicial Council upheld that decision, but it did not comment on the issue of gay marriage itself.
According to the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, same-sex marriages are "incompatible with Christian teaching." LGBT people who are “self-avowed” and “practicing” homosexuality also are forbidden from being ordained. In other words, they must remain celibate.
While the council’s decision did not comment on the issue of same-sex marriages, it was taken by gay advocates as a significant step forward for the church.
“I see this as a signal that the church is slowly moving toward full inclusion,” the Rev. Dr. Israel Alvaran, an ordained gay Methodist elder in San Francisco, told IBTimes. As the decision has been contested by more conservative clergymen, Alvaran says it demonstrates the growing schism in the church over the inclusion of its LGBT members.
“The UMC is at a crossroad, and a tipping point, in its journey toward full inclusion of all peoples in the life of this denomination,” he said, adding he hopes the decision will prod opponents to “carve out a more conservative denomination out of the UMC.”
The church's Book Of Discipline is up for review and revision every four years at an international gathering called the General Conference. The next one is in 2016. The church’s law on moral issues has been changed in the past. There was a time when the church did not ordain women and, in the more distant past, allowed slavery. Now, the church takes a strong stance towards racism and there are female bishops, including Rosemarie Wenner, the past president of the global Council of Bishops.
John Lomperis, the United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group, told IBTimes those changes were “rooted in Scripture and our United Methodist tradition.” He argues same-sex marriage is an “entirely different” matter “as it stems from rejection of very basic Christian beliefs on Jesus Christ, the Bible and human nature.”
Those who take a more progressive stance to church doctrine believe they will see change at the grassroots level.
“The change will come from bottom up, not top down,” Benz said referring to the issue of LGBT inclusion. She pointed to hundreds of Methodist ministers who have performed same-sex unions in defiance of church law. Three of them officiated her own wedding to her wife just over two years ago.
Alvaran agreed. "This decision will strengthen the resolve of all United Methodists committed to equality and inclusion to continue grassroots efforts to organize our local congregations to make a stand for obedience to the Gospel over the discriminatory and immoral mandates of church law," he said.
Since his trial, Schaefer has become a gay rights activist and has traveled across the country giving sermons and talks including a Reddit AMA on the full inclusion of LGBT members into the United Methodist Church. His work has encouraged other Methodist pastors to speak out.
Less than a month ago, 36 ministers from the United Methodist Church blessed a same-sex wedding in Philadelphia to show support for Schaefer. The ministers did not face any discipline from church authorities but were warned they would if they did it again, according to a settlement the two parties agreed upon.
The Rev. Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist minister in Portland, Oregon, said the council's decision belongs on the long “roller-coaster experience” the UMC has had with church trials on homosexuality. One of the most controversial trials took place in 2005 when Irene Stroud, a lesbian minister in Philadelphia, was defrocked by the church.
"This is not a big step forward but a continuation of the past,” Smith said about the council’s recent decision. “The best way to end this roller coaster is to remove exclusionary language in our doctrine and spend our church resources on protecting the vulnerable and calling to account those who are doing actual harm to others."
For Julie Wood, the top court’s decision gives her some hope that more families with gay children will not have to go through the same experience her family did. Her 21-year-old son Ben committed suicide May 8, 2013. His actions came after growing up in a conservative United Methodist Church. His mother remembers when Ben was 16, a youth minister shamed him in front of his friends ahead of a mission trip he was expected to attend.
“You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay. Who here is comfortable being around him?” the youth minister said, according to the youth's mother. Each child in the discussion group then had to answer. The next question posed was, “Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?”
During Ben’s freshman year at University of North Carolina at Asheville, he committed suicide in his dorm room. Julie Wood, who has been following Schaefer’s case, said his reinstatement “brings one more piece of the puzzle” to its place to make full inclusion a reality. "If ministry is not about love, dignity and respect, then it is just a silly game,” she told IBTimes. “We must keep moving forward.”