Church preparing for Pennsylvania clergy trial

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

For the first time since the 2012 United Methodist General Conference upheld the church’s stance that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” a United Methodist pastor will face a church trial for officiating at a same-sex union.

The denomination’s lawmaking body meets every four years and is the only entity that speaks for the global 12 million-member church.

It will be at least the eighth time in the last 20 years for church trial of a clergy person who has been accused of violating church law by either performing a same-sex marriage or by acknowledging being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

The Rev. Frank Schaefer goes on trial Nov. 18-19 for officiating at the same-sex union of his son in 2007. The trial will take place at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist church camp in Spring City, Pa., about 30 miles northwest of  Philadelphia.

Retired Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn Jr. will be the trial’s presiding officer. He was appointed by Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference.

Schaefer will be represented by the Rev. Robert G. Coombe, pastor of  Yardley (Pa.) United Methodist Church, and the prosecutor will be the Rev. Christopher Fisher, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa.

According to the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook, a trial occurs only after mediation, or other steps fail to provide “a just resolution.”

The 13 members of the trial court and two alternates will be selected on the first day of the trial. A conviction requires at least nine votes. Penalties can range from revoking ordination credentials to suspensions. At the most recent church trial for the Rev. Amy DeLong in 2011, the penalty was a 20-day suspension.

His son’s wedding

A complaint was filed against Schaefer one month before the statute of limitations ran out.

Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., said he “followed his heart” when his son, Tim, asked him to officiate at his wedding in 2007.

“In some sense it was a difficult decision because I knew I was putting my career, my ministry, on the line, but in another sense it was easy because my heart told me I had to do this,” he said.

Schaefer said when his son first told his parents he was gay, he also told them he had contemplated suicide. Schaefer said Tim told him that as a pastor’s son, the messages he received from the church and from the culture in Lebanon, Pa., caused him to feel something was wrong with him.

“He prayed to God that God would change him and make him ‘normal’ and when that didn’t happen he became suicidal,” Schaefer said. “When he came out, my wife and I just loved and supported him and told him there was nothing wrong with him. I said, ‘You were created in the image of God just like everyone else.’”

The wedding took place in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages are legal. The couple lives in Hull, Mass.

* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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