(RNS) A United Methodist jury Tuesday night gave a Pennsylvania pastor 30 days to agree not to break church law by presiding at future same-sex weddings or give up his clergy credentials.
The penalty was announced just before 9 p.m., in Spring City, Pa., after an emotional two-day church trial. On Monday, the Rev. Frank Schaefer was found guilty of violating church law by officiating at his son’s 2007 wedding to another man.
The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids the ordination of “avowed” homosexuals and bans clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages or holding such ceremonies in its churches. But a growing group of clergy and lay members oppose these rules and are ready to defy them. Schaefer is one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of clergy who have rebelled by performing gay weddings.
Tuesday’s penalty was sure to raise the specter of schism within the 7.5-million-member denomination, the nation’s second largest Protestant group.
The lines were drawn between Schaefer’s supporters, who fought for inclusion, and his opponents who fought for rules. Supporters said they felt called to focus on the church’s commitment to equality and justice for all. Opponents said pastors cannot choose which church laws to obey. The church requires pastors to hold one another accountable for their actions, they insisted.
Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., said during the trial that he would not repent and that his actions were guided by love, not rebellion against church law.
During testimony Tuesday, Schaefer put on a rainbow stole and said it was a sign of his support for gay rights.
"I cannot go back to being a silent supporter,” he said. He would not promise not to quit officiating at same-sex weddings.
The jury was made up of 13 United Methodist clergy and met at a denominational retreat center 45 minutes west of Philadelphia.
According to the terms they set, if at end of 30 days Schaefer can't agree to uphold church law, he must surrender his credentials.
The penalty is effective immediately, although Schaefer or the church can appeal. Church rules stipulate that nine of the 13 jurors must agree to a penalty. The tally was not made public.
Tuesday’s late night penalty announcement followed Monday’s guilty verdict on two charges: officiating a gay wedding, and showing "disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.”
Schaefer’s trial is the first since the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 2012 upheld its 40-year-old rule that calls “homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Schaefer case is among at least four open cases in which United Methodist clergy face disciplinary action for defying church law on gay marriage and homosexuality.
Twitter reactions to the penalty phase of the trial:
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