In face of threats, Methodist minister vows to continue support of gay unions

Suspended pastor officiated his son's same-sex marriage, violating policy

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The Rev. Frank Schaefer said Monday that he cannot uphold the Methodist church's ban on officiating gay marriages but will not surrender his minister's credentials, effectively challenging the church to defrock him.

A month after being convicted of violating church rules by presiding over his son's gay marriage, the Lebanon, Pa., pastor rejected the options a jury had given him -- obey the rules or step aside.

"I cannot voluntarily surrender my credentials because I am a voice now for many of the tens of thousands of LGBT members in our church," Rev. Schaefer announced to supporters and a media throng packed into the chapel of Philadelphia's Arch Street United Methodist Church.

The decision puts Rev. Schaefer's fate back in the hands of the church that put him on trial for officiating his son Tim's same-sex wedding in 2007 in Massachusetts. And it continues to hold the spotlight on the Methodist Church as it and other faiths grapple with the legal and moral divide surrounding gay marriage.

Rev. Schaefer is among a half-dozen clergy to be put on trial by the Methodist Church since 1999. At least three more trials are looming for ministers around the country who officiated same-sex weddings or are openly gay, advocates say.

On Monday, more than 50 supporters -- including many fellow ministers -- attended the pastor's announcement. As Rev. Schaefer stood in front of an altar and said he would not quit his job, the group erupted in applause.

One man, who declined to give his name, shouted out that he was prepared to give up his own credentials if Rev. Schaefer loses his when he meets with church leaders Thursday.

Rev. Schaefer said the public response to decisions he's reached in prayer has surprised him. He was unsure if this decision, which he knows seems rebellious, would be supported.

"I can't go back to saying, 'Yeah, well, that law is in place and I broke it but I broke it for a good reason,' " Rev. Schaefer said in an interview after the news conference. "I'm past that. ... I've said I will call [the church policy] by what it is."

And that, he said, is discriminatory.

Rev. Schaefer has been suspended from his post at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona since his Nov. 19 sentencing.

At the end of that two-day trial, held in the gymnasium of a Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Chester County, the jury told Rev. Schaefer he had 30 days to recommit himself to the church's laws or leave the ministry.

On Thursday, he will meet with a board of church pastors at the Norristown office of the church's Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Rev. Schaefer said that group could defrock him or let him continue to minister -- effectively letting him stand as a voice for marriage equality within a church that is deeply divided over the issue.

Advocates for social change within the church, which has about 12 million members worldwide, have said three other Methodist ministers in the United States are awaiting trials and at least three others have had complaints, but not charges, filed against them.

Several at Monday's news conference also took part in a ceremony at the Arch Street church last month in which about 50 pastors jointly blessed a same-sex wedding. Bishop Peggy Johnson, who oversees the conference, hasn't said if those ministers will be disciplined.

Rev. Schaefer and more than 40 other pastors gave Bishop Johnson a petition calling for her to refrain from holding trials, to acknowledge that some church laws are discriminatory and to call for a process of prayer and change.

Bishop Johnson declined an interview request Monday. In a statement, she said that the Methodist book of discipline "is not a perfect document." But she pointed out parts of it that affirm homosexual church members.

She said some within the church would like to see more trials because Rev. Schaefer has garnered such strong public outcry against the church's position.

Rev. Schaefer said many supporters encouraged him to say he could uphold the church's laws -- then live by his own interpretation of those rules.

But the pastor, who has three gay children, said that would have been disingenuous in light of his statement on the second day of his trial, when he slipped a rainbow stole over his shoulders and said he would continue to advocate for gay rights.

Prior to that moment -- which came after he had been convicted but before he had been sentenced -- Rev. Schaefer's defense team had tried to convince the jury that his actions broke some church rules but upheld others, including a directive to minister to all people.

Rev. Schaefer said he wants to continue ministering within the Methodist Church but believes there is a good chance he will be defrocked. He said he has been approached by other faiths, including the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, about ministering there. But he said he won't consider those options unless his credentials are taken from him.

He said he can't give them up on his own because they were given not just by the church but by God.

"I don't take this lightly," he said. "It's not like a job contract that is between the company and its employee. This is a far greater thing."

Tricia L. Nadolny; or 610-313-820 First Published December 16, 2013 1:04 PM

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