Update: Decision won’t end United Methodist same-sex debate

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After a year of frocking, defrocking and re-refrocking, The United Methodist Church’s top court has upheld an appellate committee’s earlier ruling to reinstate the Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy credentials.

The complaint that prompted the series of rulings was filed against the Pennsylvania pastor for violating church law when he officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding.

Schaefer called the decision by Judicial Council, released on Oct. 27, a small step toward reconciliation for full inclusion of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning) persons within the denomination.

The Rev. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said the ruling “hinged on obscure legal technicalities.”

“Although the decision is strictly about the legality of the penalty, unfortunately it can easily be perceived as meaning that any pastor can declare he or she won't uphold the Discipline anymore, and it doesn't matter,” Fisher said.

That is not an encouraging message at a time when the church’s unity is already being threatened by the issue of same-sex unions, he added.

Good News, an unofficial United Methodist renewal group, said the decision “overturns the good faith effort of the trial court to craft a penalty that tempered justice with grace.”

Schaefer timeline

1996—Frank Schaefer ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church.

1998—Ordained as elder.

2002—Appointed to Zion of Iona United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, as member of Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

April 28, 2007—Officiated at son’s private, same-sex wedding in Massachusetts.

April 2, 2013—Complaint filed against Schaefer by member of Zion Iona.

Nov. 18-19—Trial held. Schaefer suspended from ministerial duties for 30 days.

Dec. 19—Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry take away Schaefer’s ministerial credentials.

Dec. 20—Bishop Minerva Carcaño, California-Pacific Conference, offers Schaefer position in her conference.

July 1—He is assigned to Isla Vista Student Ministry, Santa Barbara, California.

Jan. 22, 2014—Schaefer files appeal to Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals.

Feb. 20, 2014—Date set for hearing appeal.

June 24, 2014—Schaefer’s ministerial credentials reinstated and Eastern Pennsylvania Conference told to compensate Schaefer for all lost salary and benefits dating from Dec. 19, 2013.

July 17, 2014—Counsel for church files appeal of appeals committee decision.

Oct. 22, 2014—Oral hearing heard by Judicial Council.

Oct. 27—Judicial Council releases decision affirming reinstatement of Schaefer’s ministerial credentials.

Many church rulings

The Judicial Council heard oral arguments from Fisher, counsel for the church, and the Rev. Scott Campbell, counsel for Schaefer, on Oct. 22. It was the last in a line of church rulings that began in November 2013 when a church trial court suspended Schaefer for 30 days and asked him to consider whether he could uphold the denomination’s lawbook “in its entirety.”

When Schaefer said he could not, the Eastern Pennsylvania’s Board of Ordained Ministry voted to strip him of his credentials after the 30-day suspension.

Schaefer appealed.

The Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals reinstated him in June.

Fisher appealed.

The Judicial Council considered the appeal and upheld his reinstatement.

“Their (Judicial Council) decision signals hope to our LGBTQ community that has not always seen the rule of love and grace winning over the letter of the archaic law the church still subscribes to,” Schaefer said after hearing about the ruling.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, spokesman for Good News, said, “The decision will push future trial courts in a more punitive direction.

“Good News will continue to advocate scriptural doctrinal and moral teachings and be a voice for those whose evangelical faith is often discounted by the leadership of our church.”

Schaefer experienced no legal consequences for violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline, Lambrecht said, and publicly stated he could not uphold the covenant of all United Methodist clergy, although he is still serving in an active ministry.

“Such an outcome betrays the dysfunction in our denomination and the inability to hold members accountable to the vows they have made,” Lambrecht said.

Question over penalty

Scott Campbell said it was central to the case that the appellate committee used two previous Judicial Council decisions to declare that the trial court had improperly mixed and matched penalties — one of which was based on a future possible act.

Although Schaefer was charged with performing a same-gender wedding in violation of church law, Campbell pointed out, “It’s been turned by the church into something totally different. They’re asking questions about what he’s going to commit to in the future.”

Making a penalty contingent on what a person may or may not do has been “clearly illegal” in United Methodist polity for some time, he told United Methodist News Service. “That’s a foundational point of justice, not only in the church system, but in the civil system as well.”

Campbell said he appreciates that the Judicial Council decision “really draws on the most reasoned principles of the entire tradition of our jurisprudence.”

Jen Ihlo, who chaired the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, and is a lay member at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, said she was “grateful” for the Judicial Council’s decision.

"I am grateful that the Judicial Council affirmed the hard work and decisions of the NEJ Appeals Committee in the Frank Schaefer matter. The NEJ Appeals Committee undertook its work and our mandate under the Discipline with a serious commitment to creating a sound process for hearing and deliberating the Rev. Schaefer’s appeal,” she said. 

No just resolution

The ruling put aside the jury’s attempt at a just resolution and reconciliation, Fisher said.

“Every pastor in The United Methodist Church is expected to make the same commitment as the basic condition of doing ministry. The effect of the decision is that future juries will be reluctant to offer grace or give such a final opportunity for reconciliation.”

Fisher said the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s lawmaking body, needs to change the rules for penalties or “future juries will have no discretion to apply more than one penalty even in complex cases, nor to give conditions that might lead to reinstatement.”

“The Discipline is the covenant that binds the Church together. Hopefully, the General Conference will remove this misperception," he said.      

‘Painful season’

Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said several attempts at a just resolution ended in the church trial of Nov. 18-19, 2013.

“This has been a painful season for me and many members of our conference,” she said.

She pointed out the conference recently found a just resolution to a complaint “brought against a group of clergy who co-officiated in another, symbolic same-gender wedding in November 2013,” she said.

Johnson said she believes these difficult dialogues will eventually lead toward “revelatory wisdom” and a stronger more united church.

Same-sex law unchanged

The Rev. Ted A. Campbell, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, said the ruling does not change church law, which forbids same-gender marriages.

Campbell said he thought the court had ruled correctly that Schaefer could not be tried for something he hadn’t done, but cautioned it would be a mistake to view the ruling as a huge victory for full inclusion of LGBQT persons in the church.

“It is not a victory for the progressive wing of the church,” he said.

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, professor and chair of history at Wake Forest University and one of the witnesses who testified during Schaefer’s trial,  said the decision was “absolutely correct, thoroughly grounded in the Book of Discipline and in Judicial Council precedents.

“Clergy across our connection can celebrate a decision that protects our clergy right to trial and our freedom to use our very best and most prayerful pastoral judgment in being ministers of the church,” he said.

Burden lifted

Schaefer and his wife, Brigitte, were flying to their new home in Santa Barbara, California, at the time the announcement of decision was made public. When he landed, he said the decision was a “huge relief.”

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, episcopal leader of the California-Pacific Conference, offered Schaefer an appointment at Isla Vista Student Ministry after he was defrocked.

“I rejoice in the decision of the Judicial Council in the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer for I believe it affirms our United Methodist commitment to doing all the good we can in the name of Jesus our Lord. Already Rev. Schaefer's ministry is bearing much good fruit in Southern California. The Judicial Council decision now frees him to continue the work of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world,” Carcaño said.

On Oct. 23, the day after the Judicial Council hearing on whether to affirm or defrock him, Schaefer and his wife were warmly greeted by supporters at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was signing copies of his book, “Defrocked.”

He joked at the time that he might have to change the name of his book depending on the outcome of the council’s ruling. But he added that he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“It was an amazing hearing, I felt really good about it,” he told the gathering in Nashville. In the audience were several young divinity students from Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

 “I will continue the fight alongside thousands of others in the reconciling movement for full inclusion and an open altar for all. I know the day is coming when this dream will be reality and I don't think it is that far in the future,” Schaefer said.

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. Linda Bloom, a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York, contributed to this story.

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