Trial and Consequence



By Karen Booth and Thomas A. Lambrecht –

The beautiful, wooded hills of eastern Pennsylvania were the site of an unusual and painful experience — the trial of Rev. Frank Schaefer for violating The United Methodist Church’s ban on performing same-sex weddings. The Rev. Schaefer performed the wedding of his son, Tim, and another man in 2007, but the fact of the wedding only became public last spring. A member of Schaefer’s congregation, Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, filed a complaint against him at that time.

During the supervisory process, the Rev. Schaefer refused to promise not to do another same-sex wedding in the future. Because of his unwillingness to live within his vow of obedience to the Book of Discipline, there was no choice but to take the case to trial.

On November 18, the Rev. Schaefer was found guilty by a trial court of his peers, 13 ordained United Methodist clergy, of performing a same-sex wedding and of disobedience to the order and discipline of the UM Church. On the following day, the same trial court of his peers handed down a penalty of a 30-day suspension from ministry. During that time, Schaefer was to discern whether he could “uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety,” that is, promise not to do any more same-sex weddings. If not, he was instructed to surrender his credentials, removing him from the ordained ministry of the UM Church.

This trial process, as distasteful as it was, is the process that we have available in our church for holding accountable bishops, clergy, and lay members who refuse to conform their behavior to the way of discipleship set out in our Book of Discipline. We all have freely chosen to follow this way through our vows of church membership, ordination, or consecration as a bishop. Refusal to fulfill those promises is a serious breach of integrity that threatens the unity and mission of the UM Church.

The trial verdict and penalty clearly held the Rev. Schaefer accountable for both his failure to live within the requirements of the Discipline in the past and his refusal to promise to do so in the future. Although this decision will probably be appealed, it sets a clear standard of accountability for those pastors who are willfully disobeying by performing same-sex weddings across the country.

An Act of Love?

Schaefer’s defense raised two significant issues that warrant extended analysis and commentary: first, his disobedience was an act of love and not a “crime” of rebellion, and second, since no pastor is 100 percent compliant with the Discipline, Schaefer only deserved a light penalty.

In his opening statement to the trial court, the Rev. Robert Coombe, Schaefer’s advocate, asked the following question: “How does so much love end up on trial?” It quickly became the overarching defense strategy, as Schaefer was constantly portrayed as a compassionate father whose chief desire was to respond with affirmation to his son Tim — even if that meant ignoring and disobeying church policy in order to officiate his son’s same-sex wedding. Comparing himself at one point to the Good Samaritan, Schaefer claimed: “I couldn’t pass by on the side of the road. I wouldn’t let one rule get in the way.” So although he compromised the denomination’s “ritual purity,” he did it out of love.

Schaefer undercut his own defense, however, when he acknowledged “a new calling” to serve as a spokesperson for LGBTQ persons. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the trial and since, Schaefer has persistently and publicly criticized the church’s position in interviews and talk shows on TV and radio.

Without referring to specifics, Coombe contrasted Schaefer’s conducting the service with the teaching and policy of the church regarding sex and marriage, implying that the latter was completely lacking in grace and supported by rigid legalists. In post-trial media interviews Schaefer has intensified this message by continually referring to United Methodism’s policy as “hate speech.”

But this false dichotomy between grace and law was refuted by John Wesley himself in both sermons and personal letters. For example, in his “Letter on Preaching Christ” (December 20, 1751) Wesley decried “this new manner of preaching” that neglected the commandments in the name of the so-called gospel. Describing it as “an unconnected rhapsody of unmeaning words … smooth and soft as cream, in which was neither depth nor stream,” he recognized its harm to both preacher and hearer alike to the first because it tempts them to despise colleagues as “legal wretches,” and to the second because it makes them immune to sound doctrine and “plain old truth.”

Wesley probably would have considered Coombe’s arguments to be the same kind of lopsided theology that qualifies as “cheap grace.” Such sentimental emotionalism without accountability tends to “spread death, not life,” a fact borne out by the disintegration of the “gospel only” Methodist societies of Wesley’s day. By contrast, those that followed the “old way … the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way” of preaching and practicing gospel and law continued to grow in spiritual vitality and numbers. Methodism at its best has always sought to balance grace and truth, gospel and law, acceptance and accountability.

Discipline as Guidelines

In case the “all you need is love” argument failed to convince, Schaefer’s team was also prepared with other denomination-specific arguments. Since the defense was prevented from making the claim that other parts of the Discipline trump the prohibition against performing same-sex marriage, they tried to persuade the trial court that church polity in general is not binding, or at least is subject to personal interpretation. Expert witness Dr. Thomas Frank, for example, contended that the Discipline (especially the Social Principles) is “an ambiguous pastoral document that is not canon law.” Since pastors usually fail by omission to complete all the myriad “authorized” duties described for their various orders, they shouldn’t be expected to “follow to the letter” the proscriptions against “unauthorized conduct” in ¶ 341 or chargeable offenses in ¶ 2702. One wonders if Dr. Frank would advise the same “pastoral discretion” in cases of racial discrimination, child abuse, or rebaptism. The answer is “of course not;” pastoral discretion only applies to regulations he personally deems to be unjust and discriminatory.

Another expert witness, Janet Wolfe, described the “restorative” penalty that she deemed appropriate for Schaefer’s “minor” infraction. Because our denominational understanding of marriage and sexuality is the real culprit behind the current crisis, she suggested that the church should allow Schaefer to “lead us in a process of restoration.” But that would turn the accountability process on its head and lead to a denomination-wide capitulation to the acceptance of homosexual behavior.

Fortunately, the trial court of Schaefer’s peers did not buy these specious arguments. Rather than put the church on trial, they focused on Schaefer’s avowed intent to continue his disobedience in the future. They graciously gave him 30 days to reconsider his position and make the decision that will determine his future with the UM Church. By the time you read this, his decision will have been made and acted upon.

Karen Booth and Thomas A. Lambrecht are ordained United Methodist clergypersons. Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations, a ministry of Good News. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.


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