United Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer serves communion to his supporters at the end of his two-day church trial. Photo by Kathy L. Gilbert/United Methodist News Service

Church trial shines spotlight on denomination's ambivalence

United Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer serves communion to his supporters at the end of his two-day church trial. Photo by Kathy L. Gilbert/United Methodist News Service

United Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer serves Communion to his supporters at the end of his two-day church trial. Photo by Kathy L. Gilbert/United Methodist News Service

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The United Methodist Church was not on trial at a recently concluded courtroom hearing outside of Philadelphia. But the denomination's ambivalence over homosexuality took center stage.

At its conclusion Tuesday (Nov. 19), a jury of 13 clergy suspended the Rev. Frank Schaefer from ministry for 30 days and told him that if he cannot uphold the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist rule book, including its provision on gays, he must leave the ministry.

“It reveals the struggle that we’re having as a church around the issues,” said the Rev. Gary MacDonald, a United Methodist minister and director of Advanced Ministerial Studies at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

“We do have a history of wrestling with who we are and how we are responding to God. I think that’s happening now.”

Schaefer’s trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son 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 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.

At least four other clergy cases are headed to church trials as an increasing number boldly perform such weddings in defiance of the rule book. The dispute pits two camps against each other: those who argue for inclusion and focus on the church’s commitment to equality and justice for gays, lesbians and transgender people, and those who stress rules and accountability.

MacDonald said movements on both sides of the issue are likely to continue advocating their positions in the run-up to the 2016 worldwide General Conference, when the church could change the laws in its Book of Discipline.

“I think people are really concerned for the unity of the church,” he said but added, “You look at our divisions as a nation and we shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening.”

Demographic changes are also at play. With 7.5 million members, the denomination is the nation’s second-largest Protestant group. But church membership declined by nearly 72,000 U.S. members in 2011, with 55 of 59 U.S. conferences reporting declines, according to United Methodist News Service.

That decrease comes as the denomination grew nearly 25 percent to 12 million members worldwide, thanks to dramatic growth in places including Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Delegates of the estimated 4 million-member African church members are expected to overwhelmingly block efforts at the 2016 General Conference to change church policy on homosexuality.

Meanwhile, challenges to gay policies have become increasingly public and vehement in recent months.  Tuesday night, United Methodist clergy said they will officiate at same-sex weddings on Schaefer's behalf.

Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., was found guilty on two charges for presiding at his son’s 2007 wedding to another man. The jury convicted him of officiating at a gay wedding and showing "disobedience to the order and discipline of the church.”

Schaefer says he won’t repent. During testimony Tuesday, he 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.

Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 2, 2002 commitment ceremony of his daughter, Nancy Heiss (blue dress) and Kim Willow (pink and white dress) in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss

The Rev. Steve Heiss, pastor at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y., officiates at the July 2, 2002 commitment ceremony of his daughter, Nancy Heiss (blue dress) and Kim Willow (pink and white dress) in a field in Norwich, N.Y. Photo courtesy Steve Heiss

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Rev. Steve Heiss, a Binghamton, N.Y., pastor who is awaiting word of his own trial in the Upper New York Annual Conference, said after observing the two-day trial in Spring City, Pa., that he, too, will not agree to quit presiding at gay marriages.

Jimmy Creech, a former ordained elder in Nebraska who lost his clergy credentials in 1999 after a church trial found him guilty of presiding at gay weddings, called the jury cowardly for the penalty it imposed on Schaefer.

“This is shifting the responsibility to Frank so the jury doesn’t have to be responsible,” said Creech, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. “It shows a lack of courage and integrity. He has to surrender his conscience to be a part of the church or give up his credentials.”

After the penalty was announced about 9 p.m. Tuesday, many observers began singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The group formed a circle, and Heiss broke bread while Schaefer raised the Communion cup.

“The ambiguity of it was so awful and so painful,” Heiss said. “We were trying to find some peace in the midst of this.”



  1. In the Quaker tradition, God’s concern for all creation becomes concrete in particular “concerns” that the Spirit of God awakens in the hearts of individual believers. If someone brings a concern to a weekly meeting and finds that concern is shared by others in the church, it may become the focus for communal reflection and action at ever wider levels.

    This is what happened with slavery, which Quakers began to question in the late 17th century long before it became an issue for most other Christians. But in the end the whole Christian community was persuaded of slavery’s evil. The issue of gay relationships and gay marriage seems to be a concern that the Spirit is raising in the hearts of believers across denominational boundaries. I hope Christians will have the courage to address this concern, make it the serious focus of our prayer and study, so as to find what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

  2. No person can serve two masters. Either “God is Lord” or “Gay is Lord”. There is no middle ground.

    Kudos to a very courageous Methodist jury for suspending the unrepentant Schaefer and yet giving him time to reconsider his mess. He needs to be fired right now (and a little excommunication wouldn’t hurt either!), but they are clearly extending him some grace and mercy. Again, kudos to the jury for doing the right things.

    But as Renee Gadoua’s article shows, that’s not the end of the issue. Other so-called clergy have already made it clear that THEY want to play demonic gay-marriage games too.

    So the Methodist Church must decide whether it will take a courageous Biblical stand from now on, or surrender to the gay activists and fail from now on. There is no peace treaty, on this one. Gay marriage is incompatible with Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Time to make a choice.

  3. You brought up a comparison between slavery and homophobic issues in Christian changes of viewpoint. You also need to recognize that many denominations and churches continued to use their religious interpretations to justify slavery until sometime after the violence of the Civil War finally put a lid on the issue. Note that I didn’t say that the issue was settled. It still isn’t. I have relatives in the midwest who maintain that their racial attitudes are Christian, and deny that the internecine conflict is finished, even after almost 150 years. Religions generally accede to tradition based interpretations of their authoritative texts. So as long as there are Christian churches, there may be unreasonable bias and action against persons with different skin colors, sexual preferences, and beliefs.

  4. I guess you’re saying that you may adopt your Christian standards, or, alternatively, that you can value and treat homosexual men and women as human equals, but cannot take both stances at the same time. May I assume that you take 1 Corinthians, which may have been written, in parts, by Paul, as equivalent to a direct quotation from Jesus? This was written, according to bible experts, 25 to 30 years after the legendary Jesus was supposed to have died. Also, Paul had not been acquainted with Jesus. There is no way Paul could have been quoting Jesus. In order to get around this, you have to accept the reality of something like Paul’s claimed miraculous vision on the road to Damascus, and this stretches credulity even more. Belief without reason and evidence yields a morass of very tangled and dead end questions that go nowhere. If you base your attitudes and actions regarding homosexual men and women on such drivel, you deny the human predispositions of equality, fairness, justice and empathy built into our biological structures.

  5. Quakers (nowadays called the Society of Friends) have always been the rarity among Christian sects. One which always was a champion for civil liberties and ardent supporters of protecting religious freedom by the separation of Church and State.

    They are the only Christian sect which really can lay claim to being a major force in the founding principles of our nation. Our secular government came from them. (Something which would make David Barton’s head explode)

  6. The real Jesus forgives your Jesus for his bigotry. He would forgive your Jesus, who inspires His followers to persecute those they fear.

    The real Jesus forgives your Jesus for his homophobia. He would forgive this Jesus, who would demand His followers declare some people unfit to love, to care for children, to serve their nation, or to be full members of their society.


  7. I have respect for the peace loving attitudes among the Friends. However, I have to recognize that among the early American Quakers existed loud and boisterous folk, many of whom owned slaves. This practice faded after the Revolution. I know that ideas about peaceful co-existing religious sects flourished in Quaker realms, but were also recognized and accepted in other religious venues. The claim of the constitutional idea of separation of church and state can’t be laid at the doorstep of the Quakers alone.

  8. Jesus had two commandments, one of which was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matt 22:36-40. (He does not say to love only those neighbors who are like yourself. Nor does he say, judge your neighbors harshly as the Sadducees and Pharisees do.) When he gives an example of a “good neighbor”, he identifies the Samaritan who cares for the Jew injured by the roadside, not the Jews who pass the injured man by for fear of being made unpure, defiled. Jews hated Samaritans for having different beliefs than theirs: (1. they were left behind in the diaspora since they were mostly peasants, not the upper-crust Jews toted off to Babylonia; 2. purportedly, they interbred with the new colonists settled in Samaria by the Babylonians; 3. their religious practices changed with the influx of other settlers instead of changing in the same way Jewish beliefs did in Babylonia; 4. Samaritans were, therefore, considered unpure, defiled by the Jews.)

    If there was an historical Jesus and, if he could miraculously return today, he would be ashamed of the hatred many Christian sects have spread in his name. He would be in danger of being kicked out of his own church, or crucified again.

  9. Thanks to Charles and to Lwolkow for your comments. I’ve received quite a number of insults in these discussions, so I do appreciate your responses, which offer corrections and expansions in a thoughtful and friendly spirit. Would that Congress could carry on in that vein!

  10. plorik, often we hear the phrase “the scandal of Christianity,” which is a judgment on the divisions within this religion, all perporting to embody the truth of that same religion.

    We can pick and choose among the New Testament’s transcriptions of statements made by Jesus. What I think we cannot deny, however, is that, as a Jew, Jesus held to the Decalog. I suggest that the Decalog itself, ignoring the trip up the mountain by Moses to get the tablets, is a compilation and synthesis of the natural law that is respected by all societies. In short, the Ten Commandments do not apply only to Judaism and Christianity but to all peoples everywhere even though various societies have interpreted these Commands in various ways.

  11. Mr. Freedman ought to take a look at the stats regarding the growth of the Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church in Africa.

    Also, what constitutes “unreasonable” bias? Or for that matter, bias?

    Do the racial attitudes Mr. Freedman finds among some of his own relatives represent the majority of Christians? Are there any studies that suggest most Christians (or any others, for that matter) in this country want a return to slavery and related issues?

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