by Dr. Dorothee Benz
Next week, in a makeshift courtroom at a hotel in Memphis, The United Methodist Church’s highest judicial body will decide Rev. Frank Schaefer’s fate. Schaefer was defrocked in December 2013 after a church trial in which the prosecutor threatened the jury with eternal damnation if they did not convict him. His “crime?” Saying “yes” when his son asked, “Dad, will you do my wedding?” He was reinstated in June on appeal, but the church appealed that ruling to the Judicial Council, which will hear oral arguments in the case on October 22 during its biannual meeting.
At the heart of this case has always been Schaefer’s simple and profound act of love. At every step of the way, the church’s reaction has been to place legalism and institutional loyalty above love and Biblical Obedience.
During the trial, the prosecutor (counsel for the church in Methojargon) told the jury (called the trial court) that they must impose a penalty “severe enough so that other clergy fear breaking the covenant.” The resulting penalty was indeed designed to intimidate people throughout the church into compliance with the Book of Discipline’s requirement to discriminate. It consisted of two parts: The first was a 30-day suspension for performing a same-sex wedding. The second was a conditional penalty: the jury said that if Schaefer did not say that he would “uphold the Discipline in its entirety” – effectively promising to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the future should they seek ministry from him – then he would be defrocked. Schaefer indicated that he could not make such a blanket statement, knowing that it would require him to deny ministry to people based solely on who God created them to be, and he was stripped of his credentials.
The Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals ruled that Schaefer’s defrocking was illegal because he was punished not for what he did – the 30-day suspension did that – but for what he might do in the future. That is not permissible under our church law. There is no “pre-crime” in The UMC, at least not yet.
It is bitterly ironic that the church is appealing the NEJ Appeals decision because it is based entirely on church law. The prosecutor and those throughout the country loudly calling for every greater punishments for clergy for ministering to LGBTQ people have always said we must enforce the rules because they are the rules and without respect for the law, our church can’t function. But the appeals ruling shows the highest respect for the law. It is a meticulously and conservatively argued opinion constructed entirely on the Book of Discipline and Judicial Council precedents. The fact that the church is appealing it removes the fig leaf of reverence for the law from the naked bigotry that is the real motivation here. If the church were concerned with the law, it would accept the NEJ Appeals decision.
The significance of the Judicial Council’s decision in this case could hardly be overstated.
A victory upholding the NEJ Appeals decision will pull The UMC back from the brink of self-destruction and signal to those inside and outside the church that even as these discriminatory laws remain on the books, acts of pastoral faithfulness and conscience should not be met with harsh repression. This is the path most clearly illuminated by the late Bishop McLee’s commitment to “a cessation of trials” as part of the resolution in Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree’s case.
Conversely, if Schaefer loses and the NEJ Appeals decision is overturned – a decision so clearly grounded in the very Book of Discipline that we supposedly value so much that the church stripped him of his credentials for saying he could not promise in perpetuity to uphold every last word and comma of it – it will signal the end to any integrity our judicial system has left.
And it will signal to LGBTQ people that The United Methodist Church has no place for us. That we are so unwelcome in the church that any act of compassion and love that ministers to us and runs afoul of the rules will be met with severe repression.
Regardless of what happens, however, our movement will keep growing and the pressure on The UMC to abandon this era of discrimination will inexorably increase. As the reaction to Schaefer’s trial already made clear, no amount of repression will stop this movement of love. Clergy are continuing to minister equally to all of their parishioners. Ever more groups of United Methodists are joining the organized refusal to discriminate – In Oklahoma, in Texas, and across the country. Methodists in New Directions (MIND) published an eight-month weekly blog series by pastors who have performed same-sex weddings. Change is coming to The UMC: It is coming from the bottom up, and along the way it is breathing new life into the church.
Frank Schaefer’s act of love is part of this movement, and it points the way forward for the church: Choosing love over legalism. Placing ministry to others above personal interest or security. Above all, overcoming the fear that has held so many in The UMC in thrall and subservient to the requirement to discriminate.
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Follow news in Frank Schaefer’s case with hashtag #MinistryOnTrial.