BALTIMORE — A Methodist church panel on Friday weighed whether to reinstate Frank Schaefer, the Pennsylvania pastor defrocked after he officiated at his gay son’s wedding, with some members making clear they questioned the penalty’s legality under church law.
During the hearing, the members grilled the pastor who prosecuted Schaefer’s case about the punishment and how it was imposed, including whether Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., could be disciplined for not promising to uphold the church discipline “in its entirety.”
“Do you really think it is actually possible for all of us elders to uphold completely — from beginning to end — the discipline?” Lyssette Perez, a pastor from New Jersey, asked.
The committee, consisting of nine clergy and lay members from the church’s Northeast jurisdiction, is expected to issue a decision Saturday on whether to uphold Schaefer’s sentence, revoke it, or impose a new one. Gay rights activists have said the ruling could send shock waves through the denomination, where talk of a schism has surfaced.
Schaefer’s case put the divisions on a national stage when he was charged last year with breaking doctrinal law by officiating at his son Tim’s same-sex wedding in 2007 in Massachusetts. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers at a November trial in Chester County.
A month later, Schaefer’s ministering credentials were revoked when he rejected the options given to him by that jury: Promise to uphold the Methodist doctrines at the end of a 30-day suspension, or step aside.
During Friday’s hearing, held in a ballroom and attended by more than 50 LGBT activists donning multicolor scarves, Schaefer’s counsel said the sentence wrongly attempted to hold him accountable for his future actions rather than the act he was charged with, blessing his son’s wedding.
Schaefer’s counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued that the 30-day suspension was the only legal element of the punishment.
The church’s counsel, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, described those 30 days as a “grace period” and a delay of Schaefer’s actual penalty. While Schaefer argued he could not be punished for what might happen in the future, Fisher said Schaefer made clear his intention to break church law and effectively rejected his own vows.
He said the declaration in defiance of church law is different from pastors occasionally breaking the church’s rules.
“Stumbling is not the same as saying, ‘I chose to reject that part,’” Fisher said.
He also argued that Schaefer had no right to appeal because of a stipulation that the right is forfeited if a person acts in defiance of the trial court’s findings. Schaefer, he said, refused to give up his credentials as the jury ordered.
Panel members questioned both sides. But their discussion of the church’s arguments took up a substantial portion of the 21/2-hour hearing, and some members said they disagreed with parts of Fisher’s stance.
“I do not hear, ‘I’m going to do more same-sex marriages,’” member Scott Johnson, a layman from New York, said when considering whether Schaefer had vowed to continue breaking church laws.
“If that’s the case, why didn’t he say, ‘I am going to uphold the discipline,’ when I asked him at the trial?” Fisher asked in response.
Of Schaefer’s counsel, committee member Royce Lyden, a lay member from West Virginia, asked: “Is the penalty imposed in line with church law?”
“No, it’s not,” Campbell replied.
Regardless of the outcome, the case has left a mark on the church by galvanizing both sides of the gay rights debate.
Those calling for change of the church’s laws on same-sex weddings and openly gay pastors have embraced a stance of civil disobedience — what they call “biblical obedience” — leading to a surge of pastors defying the rules. And some bishops have placed moratoriums on church trials, opening the door for pastors to officiate at gay weddings without fear of reprisal.
Meanwhile, support for a schism has increased among conservatives, with some saying the church cannot stay whole if one faction refuses to live by the church’s rules.
After the hearing, amid a swarm of cameras and reporters, Schaefer said, “I accept the punishment that was placed upon me, which was the 30-day suspension. But not the defrocking.”