Methodists defrock pastor over son's gay wedding rites

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PHILADELPHIA -- A Protestant minister from Central Pennsylvania was defrocked Thursday for refusing to abide by the United Methodist Church's policies on homosexuality, writing another chapter in a case that stirred a wider call for social change when he was put on trial for officiating his son's gay wedding.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., had hoped that the church's Board of Ordained Ministers would allow him to keep his credentials, effectively letting him stand as a voice for gay rights in a church deeply divided over its ban on same-sex weddings and gay clergy. Instead, that group met for just 15 minutes at the church's Eastern Pennsylvania Conference offices in Norristown, outside Philadelphia, before making its decision.

"I said to myself, 'I just cannot see them take my credentials.' I mean, what I did was an act of love for my son," Mr. Schaefer said Thursday at a news conference at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. He had led a congregation in the town of Lebanon more than a decade.

As he spoke in front of a line of cameras, Mr. Schaefer's shoulders slumped, and he lacked the same zeal he had possessed in the past weeks while advocating for gay rights in the church. The minister said his sadness after the board's decision had taken him by surprise.

"It's one thing to talk about the possibility and another to experience it," he said as the church emptied. "Today, I could really feel what it felt like to be excluded."

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who oversees the conference, said the board did not have the power to overrule the order a jury gave Mr. Schaefer at the end of his two-day trial held last month at a Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Chester County. The jury told him to recommit to the doctrine or step aside. Mr. Schaefer chose to do neither.

As the appeal begins, Mr. Schaefer's case could continue to hold the spotlight on the United Methodist Church as it and other denominations grapple with the divisive issues of gay rights. Methodist doctrine characterizes homosexuality as being incompatible with Christian teachings.

Locally, the trial has emboldened groups who have long fought for change within the church and have seen Mr. Schaefer's case -- and the national media attention it has gained -- as a springboard for the cause. Advocates circulated petitions and organized protests in Mr. Schaefer's support, including at a same-sex wedding last month in Philadelphia that was jointly officiated by more than 50 ministers.

Conservative groups have said those efforts threaten unity in the church and are attempts to skirt available paths for reform. John Lomperis, a director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, applauded Thursday's outcome. "This episode highlights the importance of churches in all traditions protecting themselves and the cause of Christ by carefully screening would-be pastors for biblical grounding and moral character, and having effective means of accountability," he said in a statement.

Regardless of Mr. Schaefer's fate, supporters say they have seen progress come through his case.

Bishop Johnson, who has previously spoken in support of passing antidiscrimination legislation in Pennsylvania, on Tuesday issued a statement saying some parts of the church's book of discipline are discriminatory against homosexuals. While other parts of church law affirm gay members, the contradictions leave many "from the outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouths," she wrote.

Schaefer attorney William Ewing said he anticipates that the appeals council will make a decision next summer or fall. That decision could further be appealed to the church's judicial council, equivalent to its supreme court.

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