Father, Son, a Holy Choice: Pastor Faces Defrocking Over Son's Gay Wedding

Accepting his son's homosexuality may mean being pushed out of the church for this Pennsylvania pastor.

(Photo: Chris Burt/Getty Images)

Nov 26, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

The Reverend Frank Schaefer was elated when his son Tim asked him to officiate at his same-sex wedding six years ago. The two had overcome so many obstacles over the span of nearly a decade that the answer was simple.

"I was joyful at that moment, and I was honored,” Schaefer told TakePart. “Of course I said yes.”

Before Tim was "outed" by an anonymous phone call, Schaefer's son battled thoughts of suicide, crying himself to sleep because he felt rejected by his Methodist faith. The messages that rang throughout much of the Christian community more than a decade ago were markedly different from more accepting feelings that are being expressed in many corners of the faith.

When Schaefer and his wife realized their son’s pain, they accepted him and never looked back.

Yet while much of the country has grown more accepting of same-sex marriage over the past few years—52 percent of Americans favor allowing gay marriage, according to an October survey from the Public Religion Research Institute—not all faith communities have embraced gay rights.

"This is not about theology. This is about the life of our children"
—Rev. Frank Schaefer.

Schaefer faced what he called an "emotionally exhausting" trial among his church peers in Pennsylvania last week, where he was accused of violating the United Methodist Church doctrine forbidding clergy from presiding over same-sex weddings. As punishment, he was suspended for 30 days and told that if he did not renounce his support for gay marriage and gay rights within the church, he would be defrocked.

"We’re still recovering from that and trying to figure out what this penalty means," Schaefer, 51, said. "This is very strange."

Schaefer's case is one of a host of similar scenarios in which Methodist pastors have been publicly lambasted for supporting the LGBT community, exposing the schism within the denomination.

Last month, retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert presided over a same-sex wedding in Hoover, Ala. The couple was legally married in Washington, D.C., in September, according to The United Methodist Reporter, but wanted church recognition as well. When the UMC leadership realized Talbert’s role in the ceremony, it was incensed.

The Council of Bishops said in a statement that it has asked its president to file a complaint against Talbert for “undermining the ministry of a colleague and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple.”

In addition to Talbert and Schaefer, three Methodist clergy members in New York are facing formal complaints for their recalcitrance in the face of the UMC’s teachings on homosexuality.

But the Lebanon, Pa., pastor has no intention of rolling over and playing dead. Instead, he said, he plans to take his suspension head-on, "putting the ball back in their court." He set the plan in motion during his trial when he told his jury of fellow pastors that the LGBT community should be treated as equals and not "second-class Christians."

Schaefer, who left his native Germany more than 20 years ago, argues that no court should have the right or power to ask a person to punish himself.

"I will not hand in my credentials. I will tell them I am not willing to defrock myself," he said, a hint of his German accent lingering in his words. "And I will perform gay marriages if asked."

Jon Boger, a member of Schaefer's Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, filed the complaint against his pastor because he was outraged by what he viewed as rebellion and defiance of the Christian laws upheld by the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country.

The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline states the church "does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

There is some difference among different demographics of the church when it comes to acceptance of gay marriage. A majority of white mainline Protestants support gay marriage rights, but more than 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants, almost two-thirds of Hispanic Protestants, and nearly 60 percent of black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage, a March PRRI study shows.

Experts say the United Methodist Church won’t give in to external pressures calling for a change of church policy, partially because of the organizational structure of the denomination. The UMC does not operate under auspices similar to the Roman Catholic Church, for example—there is no infallible leader, no Pope Francis, who demonstrates the way parishioners should carry out their faith.

“Even though, theoretically, it is representational like our government, if you get people in the right positions that are against what you want to do, they’ll just shut it down,” said Richard Flory, a religion expert at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Schaefer argues the UMC has made no movement toward openness or even acknowledgment that there are dissenting views within the church. He said he and other members of the church have been working to have a statement put into the system that acknowledges the “sizable minority” that does not agree with the church’s policy on same-sex marriage and on LGBT ordination. So far, they have been shut down.

“What I want to get across is the pain they’re causing,” Schaefer said. “This is not about theology. This is about the life of our children.”