A onetime Methodist pastor who was stripped of his clerical credentials because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated, a startling reversal for a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by divisions over same-sex relationships.
A United Methodist Church appeals committee — a nine-member panel made up of laypeople and clergy — said Tuesday that it had decided to overturn the punishment of Frank Schaefer, who with three gay children and a determination to celebrate their relationships has become an unexpected champion of gays and lesbians in church life. The panel deemed the punishment too harsh.
Mr. Schaefer, who had been the pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., was defrocked last year, six years after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son. An all-clergy church court found him guilty of disobeying the denomination’s order and discipline.
His case has become a test of the denomination’s willingness to enforce its own rules. The church’s Book of Discipline defines marriage as between a man and a woman, declares homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and forbids clergy from performing same-sex weddings; the denomination also says it will not ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” But there is widespread civil disobedience within the denomination — hundreds of Methodist ministers have signed a statementsaying they are willing to officiate at same-sex marriages, and multiple clergy have done so; there are also clergy who have declared themselves to be gay.
As Mr. Schaefer’s case proceeded through the church’s appellate process, other disciplinary proceedings had been postponed. In New York, a Methodist bishop earlier this year vowed to stop holding church trials in his region for ministers who perform same sex-marriages, and in Washington State, two ministers who had officiated at same-sex weddings were given relatively minor 24-hour suspensions.
Mr. Schaefer, 52, appealed his defrocking, and last Friday a panel called the Committee on Appeals for the Northeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church held a nearly three-hour-long hearing on the case, and then deliberated behind closed doors, at a hotel in Linthicum, Md., near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At the hearing, an advocate for the church’s Eastern Pennsylvania conference, which had ruled against Mr. Schaefer, argued that church courts had an obligation to uphold church law.
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who represented the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said that though church elders were not perfect, they committed themselves to the church’s laws and, if they disagreed, they should try to change the laws through petition rather than disobey them.
The appeals panel did not question Mr. Schaefer’s guilt but significantly altered his punishment. It changed his penalty to a 30-day suspension, which it deemed to have already taken place.