A Methodist church panel is weighing whether to reinstate Frank Schaefer, the Pennsylvania pastor defrocked after he officiated at his gay son’s wedding, with some members making clear they questioned the penalty’s legality under church law.
During the hearing, the members grilled the pastor who prosecuted Rev. Schaefer’s case about the punishment and how it was imposed, including whether Rev. Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., could be disciplined for not promising to uphold the church discipline “in its entirety.”
“Do you really think it is actually possible for all of us elders to uphold completely -- from beginning to end -- the discipline?” Lyssette Perez, a pastor from New Jersey, asked.
The committee, consisting of nine clergy and lay members from the church’s Northeast jurisdiction, is expected to issue a decision Saturday on whether to uphold Rev. Schaefer’s sentence, revoke it, or impose a new one. Gay rights activists have said the ruling could send shock waves through the denomination, where talk of a schism has surfaced.
Rev. Schaefer’s case put the divisions on a national stage when he was charged last year with breaking doctrinal law by officiating at his son Tim’s same-sex wedding in 2007 in Massachusetts. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers at a November trial in Chester County.
A month later, Rev. Schaefer’s ministering credentials were revoked when he rejected the options given to him by that jury: Promise to uphold the Methodist doctrines at the end of a 30-day suspension, or step aside.
During Friday’s hearing, held in a ballroom and attended by more than 50 LGBT activists donning multicolor scarves, Rev. Schaefer’s counsel said the sentence wrongly attempted to hold him accountable for his future actions rather than the act he was charged with, blessing his son’s wedding.
Schaefer’s counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued that the 30-day suspension was the only legal element of the punishment.
The church’s counsel, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, described those 30 days as a “grace period” and a delay of Rev. Schaefer’s actual penalty. While Rev. Schaefer argued he could not be punished for what might happen in the future, Rev. Fisher said Rev. Schaefer made clear his intention to break church law and effectively rejected his own vows.
He said the declaration in defiance of church law is different from pastors’ occasionally breaking the church’s rules.
“Stumbling is not the same as saying, ‘I chose to reject that part,’” Rev. Fisher said.Frank Schaefer