Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist Church (UMC) minister who was defrocked by church leaders and subsequently reinstated for officiating the wedding of his gay son, has been fully restored to his position as a pastor today following an official ruling from the church’s highest court.
Schaefer, who has become a prominent figure in the Methodist LGBT rights movement, was reinstated as a pastor — complete with back-pay and benefits — in June when a lower-level appeals court within the church reversed his defrocking on a technicality. The court ruled that the original decision to strip Schaefer of his ministerial credentials unfairly penalized him for things he might do in the future (such as perform another same-sex marriage), and inappropriately “mix[ed] and match[ed]” punishments. However, the lower court’s decision was appealed to the Judicial Council, the church’s highest juridical body, which heard oral arguments on the case last week. Today the Council upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding “no errors in the application of the church law and judicial decisions.”
“Today, we are witnessing a small, but significant step toward taking another look at the exclusionary policies of The United Methodist Church,” Schaefer said in a press release from Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for LGBT rights within the Methodist church. “The UM Church needs to find a way toward reconciliation, full inclusion of our LGBTQ community and an open altar for all God’s beloved children. I will continue the fight alongside thousands of others in the reconciling movement for full inclusion and an open altar for all.”
Although today’s decision closes the book on Schaefer’s particular case, it does not officially sanction same-sex marriage within the UMC. Such a change would require a vote at the denomination’s General Conference, where homosexuality has been a hotly contested subject in years past.
“The UMC has taken a step on the journey toward justice in the reinstatement of Rev. Frank Schaefer, but still has a long way to go to reconcile with God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children whose desire is to stay in love with God and one another,” said Matt Berryman, Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Methodists and other Christians in favor of LGBT rights rallied behind Schaefer ahead of the meeting, with advocates hosting prayer vigils in solidarity with the UMC pastor at churches in Washington, DC, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Atlanta, Georgia, among other cities. Activists also took to the web, writing blog posts about the need for LGBT inclusion within the UMC and tweeting prayers for Schaefer under the hashtag #MinistryonTrial. An online petition decrying the possibility of Schaefer’s defrocking was also created by progressive Christian organization Faithful America the day before the meeting. The petition accrued more than 15,000 signatures in 24 hours from people supportive of Schaefer.
The decision also comes in the wake of a groundswell of pro-LGBT advocacy within the UMC, spurred in part by the national visibility of Schaefer’s case. When Schaefer was defrocked in 2013, 36 United Methodist pastors from Eastern Pennsylvania jointly officiated a same-sex wedding as a show of support for Schaefer’s actions. The clergy were ultimately not charged with wrongdoing by the UMC, reaching an agreement with the denomination to avoid sanctions as long as they acknowledged that they could be punished if they tried to bless another same-sex union. Even so, local Bishop Peggy Johnson warned that future infractions would be dealt with “swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences.”
Meanwhile, other pro-LGBT Methodists have taken a different tact: more progressive UMC bishops have declared that they will simply refuse to take up trials against Methodist ministers like Schaefer who perform same-sex marriages.