The New York Times reports…
“A Methodist pastor who was defrocked because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated in a startling reversal by a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by disagreements over same-sex relationships.
A United Methodist Church appeals committee — a nine-member panel made up of laypeople and clergy members — said Tuesday that it had decided to overturn the ouster of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who with three gay children and a determination to celebrate their relationships has become an unexpected champion of gay men and lesbians in church life.
The panel deemed the defrocking to be an illegitimate effort to punish Mr. Schaefer for his refusal to promise not to preside at another same-sex wedding.
Mr. Schaefer, 52, described himself as “totally elated” by the appeals panel decision, and he said he would celebrate in part by taking his son Tim, at whose same-sex wedding he officiated, to a White House gay pride event on Monday. Mr. Schaefer, who until his defrocking in December had been the pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., will resume his pastoral work next month in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño has offered him a position ministering to college students.
“Today there was a very clear and strong signal from the church, and that message is, ‘Change is on the way,’ ” Mr. Schaefer said in a telephone interview. “One day we will celebrate the fact that we have moved beyond this horrible chapter in our church’s life.”
But conservative Methodists were unhappy with the decision, and they said that talks about a schism in the denomination would now intensify. The United Methodist Church has about seven million members in the United States and four million more in other countries; it is theologically diverse, with prominent members including George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“This will be confirmation for traditionalists that we are deeply divided and may not be able to live together,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, the president of Good News, a United Methodist organization that opposes same-sex marriage. “When we have people who are not only disobedient, but who find a way to not have to keep the covenant they have made with the rest of the church, it helps us see that maybe we are so different that we’ve come to the end of the road together.”
The appeals panel’s decision comes as public opinion, the legal landscape and religious doctrines toward gay rights are rapidly changing, often with considerable conflict. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, and it is now legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C.
The religious world is deeply divided over whether and how to recognize same-sex relationships, and whether to ordain noncelibate gay men and lesbians as clergy members. Liberal Christian and Jewish denominations have become increasingly supportive of gay men and lesbians and their relationships, while more conservative denominations have held to traditional teachings about sexuality and marriage.
The United Methodist Church’s official positions on same-sex relationships are clear: The denomination’s Book of Discipline defines marriage as between a man and a woman, declares homosexual practice to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” and forbids clergy members to perform same-sex weddings. The denomination also says it will not ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
But there is significant resistance to those policies within the denomination. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have signed a statement saying they are willing to officiate at same-sex marriages, and some have done so; there are also clergy members who have declared themselves to be gay.
Other Methodist clergy members have faced sanctions for breaking the denomination’s rules — in 1999, the Rev. Jimmy Creech was defrocked for officiating at the marriage of two men — and Mr. Schaefer said that, when his son asked him in 2006 to preside at his wedding the next year, he knew he was risking his ministry.
“I really didn’t do this to make a rebellious statement — I did this as an act of love,” Mr. Schaefer said. “He had been harmed and hurt by the message of the church that said you can’t be homosexual and go to heaven — it threw him into such a spin that he was considering suicide — and had I said no to his request, it would have negated all the affirmations my wife and I had given him.”
Tim Schaefer, 30, who lives in Hull, Mass., said that he, too, had known the risks, but that “I had to ask him — he was my dad.”
“When the complaint came about, I really blamed myself, because I had put him in this position, but now I’ve grown to realize the problem is with the policies of the church,” the younger Mr. Schaefer said. He said he remained a United Methodist and was active in his local church, St. Nicholas, which welcomes gay worshipers.
As Mr. Schaefer’s case proceeded through the church’s appellate process, other disciplinary proceedings stalled. In New York, a Methodist bishop 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.
The appeals panel that ordered Mr. Schaefer reinstated, called the Committee on Appeals for the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, issued its ruling four days after holding a nearly three-hour hearing on the case at a hotel near Baltimore.
At the hearing, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, an advocate for the church’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, argued that church courts had an obligation to uphold church law. But Mr. Schaefer’s advocate, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued that the church’s trial court had erroneously sought to punish him for possible future misconduct.
The appeals panel did not question Mr. Schaefer’s guilt, and left in place a 30-day suspension, which it said Mr. Schaefer had served last fall, as punishment for violations of church law. But it said the defrocking — removing Mr. Schaefer’s clerical credentials — was wrong.
The decision by the appeals panel can be appealed to the church’s Judicial Council; it was not immediately clear whether church officials would choose to pursue that course.
The ruling is unlikely to end charges against Methodist ministers who officiate at same-sex weddings, according to the Rev. Ted A. Campbell, an associate professor of church history at Southern Methodist University.
“It still stands that performing a union of gay persons is a chargeable offense, and others could and probably will be removed for doing that,” Mr. Campbell said. But he also said the ruling would probably hasten talk of a split within the denomination.
Advocates for gay rights in the United Methodist Church said that in 2016, when its next general conference takes place, they would push for the church to remove the provisions of its law that ban same-sex weddings and the ordination of noncelibate gay men and lesbians.
And there is some discussion within the church of a possible compromise, under which every congregation could decide whether to allow same-sex weddings, and every region could decide whether to ordain noncelibate gay clergy members.”