Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with reaction to the Judicial Council decision released Monday to affirm the reinstatement of Frank Schaefer as an ordained elder. Schaefer’s ordination had been revoked by a trial court in Eastern Pennsylvania that found him guilty of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church for performing a same-sex wedding for his son.
This decision does nothing to change The United Methodist Church’s position that marriage is between one man and one woman, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that clergy are forbidden to perform same-sex marriages or unions.
What the decision does do (unless the Discipline is changed) is push trial courts (juries) to be more punitive in the penalties they assess for those found guilty of offenses in church trials (for any reason, not just on same-sex marriage). Had the Pennsylvania trial court simply revoked Schaefer’s ordination or issued a one-year suspension, the penalty would have withstood appeal.
Instead, the trial court attempted to be gracious, giving Schaefer time to discern his new “calling” as an advocate for LGBTQ persons and causes. After 30 days of discernment, if Schaefer had determined that this calling did not allow him to maintain his conduct within the requirements of the Book of Discipline, he was to surrender his credentials of ordination. Schaefer did determine that he could no longer uphold the requirements of the Discipline, but he refused to surrender his credentials, so the Board of Ordained Ministry revoked them.
The impulse motivating the trial court was a noble and Christ-like attempt to give an offender a second chance. However, that impulse is what got the penalty overturned. One cannot blame the trial court for their error in levying the penalty, since there was nothing in the instructions given to them about penalties that told them they had to choose only one penalty. By the Judicial Council’s reading of the Discipline, a trial court must choose to 1) revoke a guilty clergy’s credentials, 2) suspend the person for a set amount of time, or 3) levy some lesser penalty. Since the trial court levied a suspension (even though it was fully paid), they could not also revoke Schaefer’s credentials. (This reading of the penalty requirements would preclude other common-sense penalties, such as suspending a pastor convicted of embezzling funds and also requiring them to pay the money back.)
So, because of a legal technicality, Schaefer’s penalty was overturned. But this decision did not alter the position of the church on this contentious issue.
Schaefer is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Justice was done. This really signals the entire Methodist church is interested in keeping the dialogue going, rather than just outright banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights. This is definitely a step farther down the road.”
With all due respect, this was not a decision of “the entire Methodist church.” It was a decision of one body – the Judicial Council – and perhaps as few as five of the nine members of that body.
It was also not a “signal” that the church wants to “keep the dialogue going, rather than … banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights.” It was a technical decision that disallowed a particular penalty. And Schaefer was not “banned” because he spoke up for LGBT rights. He was penalized for his act of disobeying church policy. There are plenty of pastors who “speak up for LGBT rights” and who are not “banned.”
What is sad about the outcome of this case is that it adds one more instance to a litany of occasions when church leaders have not been held accountable for violating the vows they took. We have learned that, when a bishop or pastor is determined not to abide by church policy, if they have the support of colleagues, they can escape any consequences for their unfaithfulness. What secular company would ever allow such a thing? Yet the church has been repeatedly unable to compel its leaders to abide by the policies determined by the General Conference through the processes we all agreed upon.
As the Good News statement said, “An ordained elder who has stated publicly that he cannot uphold the covenant that governs our life together as United Methodist clergy is still actively serving in ministry. Such an outcome betrays the dysfunction in our denomination and the inability to hold members accountable to the vows they have made.” This lack of integrity in our system is a corrosive acid, eating away at the trust that holds our connection together. It affects many local church ministries and is the reason many United Methodists have left and are leaving our church.
This decision, while from one perspective it may be technically correct, further undermines the confidence that ordinary church-goers have that the church can uphold its own policies. This trend puts even more pressure on the 2016 General Conference to resolve the impasse and bring about renewed accountability. Absent such a resolution, our church is headed for disintegration.