A Pennsylvania pastor who broke church law by presiding over his son’s same-sex wedding ceremony and then became an outspoken activist for gay rights can return to the pulpit after a United Methodist Church appeals panel on Tuesday overturned a decision to defrock him.
The nine-person panel ordered the church to restore Frank Schaefer’s pastoral credentials, saying the jury that convicted him last year erred when fashioning his punishment.
“I’ve devoted my life to this church, to serving this church, and to be restored and to be able to call myself a reverend again and to speak with this voice means so much to me,” an exultant Schaefer told The Associated Press, adding he intends to work for gay rights “with an even stronger voice from within the United Methodist Church.”
Sara Baron, pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Schenectady, confirmed Tuesday that Schaefer will be at her church Sunday to honor a speaking engagement planned earlier this month. Schaefer will participate in the 10 a.m. service, and be the guest speaker at the church’s Lecture Series at 3 p.m. later in the day.
“We had talked about this earlier and he had warned me, so having had that conversation I’m sure he will be here,” said Baron. “He said if he got reinstated it might draw a bigger crowd, so I’m thrilled.”
The church suspended Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for officiating his son’s 2007 wedding, then defrocked him when he refused to promise to uphold the Methodist law book “in its entirety,” including its ban on clergy performing same-sex marriages.
Schaefer appealed, arguing the decision was wrong because it was based on an assumption he would break church law in the future. Schaefer was defended by Methodist pastor Scott Campbell, an acquaintance of Baron’s.
“Scott Campbell is a retiring pastor who is retiring so he can try these kinds of cases,” said Baron. “He is one of the smartest individuals I know in the church, and he made a substantial and concrete argument. Fortunately the jurisdiction committee was wise enough to see that the argument was correct.
The appeals panel, which met in Linthicum, Maryland, last week to hear the case, upheld a 30-day suspension that Schaefer has already served and said he should get back pay dating to when the suspension ended in December.
Bishop Peggy Johnson of the church’s eastern Pennsylvania conference said Tuesday she will abide by the panel’s decision and return him to active service.
The ruling can be appealed to the Methodist church’s highest court. The pastor who prosecuted Schaefer, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, said he has not made a decision about an appeal.
“I’m still in prayerful consideration about that,” said Fisher, calling Tuesday’s decision “not entirely unexpected.”
At a news conference in Philadelphia, Schaefer said he expects to take a job with the Methodist church in California where there is presumably little chance he would be punished for defying church doctrine on homosexuality.
The issue of gay marriage has long been a divisive issue in the United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church policies that allow gay members but ban “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy and forbid ministers from performing same-sex marriages.
Traditionalists say clergy have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.
Schaefer said Tuesday’s decision “signals a major change within the United Methodist Church, for sure.”
The appeals panel, however, suggested it was not making a broader statement about the church’s position on homosexuality but based its decision solely on the facts of Schaefer’s case.
The jury’s punishment was illegal under church law, the appeals panel concluded, writing in its decision that “revoking his credentials cannot be squared with the well-established principle that our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future.”
The decision also noted that Schaefer’s son had asked him to perform the wedding; that the ceremony was small and private, held not in a Methodist church but in a Massachusetts restaurant; and that Schaefer did not publicize the wedding until a member of his congregation learned of it and filed the complaint in April 2013.
Schaefer, 52, said he expects the decision to stand.
“The church is changing,” he said, “and that is good news for everybody.”
Alan Kinney of Eastern Parkway Methodist Church in Schenectady and Jim Fenimore of the First United Methodist Church of Saratoga Springs both welcomed Tuesday’s verdict.
“This is wonderful news,” said Kinney. “I’m glad there is more than one way of resolving a very painful situation, and maybe we all can learn from that.”
Kinney did say, based on the language of the appeals ruling, that Schaefer’s standing could still be at risk if he breaks a rule from the Methodist Book of Discipline.
“They can’t convict someone for intention, but I do believe there could be another trial,” he said. “He didn’t promise that he wouldn’t do it again, but this does show that there is more than one way of dealing with any questions from the Book of Discipline, and the authority of the Book of Discipline.”
Fenimore also felt the decision was a good sign for what lies ahead for the Methodist church.
“It’s a good sign for the future,” said Fenimore. “I’m very pleased, and it is the right decision. We knew it was never about whether or not he did it. It was about the harshness of the punishment, and that is completely left open to the jury to decide. In this case it went way beyond what was appropriate, so the jurisdiction corrected that. It’s a good sign for the future.”
As did Kinney, Fenimore pointed out that Schaefer is not free from any future punishment should he again preside at a same-sex wedding.
“He could end up going through the whole process again, but for those of us who find this part of the discipline unfair or just immoral, this provides us with the ability to continue to do what we think is right, and not have to worry about such a level of penalty for forces us to lose our career. This shows that there’s a way to do this much more reasonably.”