COMMITTEE ON APPEALS NORTHEASTERN JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
In the Matter of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, Appellant.
(Original Jurisdiction: Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church)
Digest of Decision
The compound penalty the Trial Court fashioned for purposes of this judicial proceeding — a 30-day suspension, to be followed by a mandatory surrender of credentials if the Respondent failed to satisfy the Board of Ordained Ministry that he would henceforth uphold the Book of Discipline “in its entirety” — is not within the range of penalties authorized by ¶ 2711.3 of the Discipline. Trial Courts have ample latitude to select an appropriate penalty from among the alternatives listed in ¶ 2711.3, but those penalty provisions are to be strictly construed and do not allow the mixing and matching of penalties that are designed to be distinct. Judicial Council Decision No. 240. Nor may the imposition of any penalty, let alone the enhanced penalty of a withdrawal of credentials, be predicated on “a future possibility, which may or may not occur, rather than a past or present act.” Decision No. 725. –
Consequently, errors of Church law vitiate the penalty imposed by the Trial Court and the penalty imposed on Respondent shall be modified as follows: The Respondent is suspended, without compensation, from the exercise of all duties and functions of a pastor, and from the enjoyment of all privileges of a member in full connection of the Annual Conference, for a period of 30 days, which suspension shall be deemed to have commenced on November 19, 2013 and ended December 18, 2013. Pursuant to ¶ 2711.3 of the Discipline, the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference shall restore Respondent’s credentials and compensate Respondent for all lost salary and benefits dating from December 19, 2013. – United Methodist News Service, June 24, 2014
If you follow United Methodist news at all, you know the story of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, the pastor from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference who had his orders revoked in December because he was found guilty of having presided in 2007 at his son’s wedding to another man. The key paragraph of the summary of the judgment of the Jurisdictional Appeals Court appears above. The entire decision can be read by clicking the link.
The irony, if one can call it that, is the Jurisdictional Appeals Court’s ruling is a victory for church law. It is a victory, then, for order – part of what United Methodist clergy are ordained to uphold and practice – over personal preference and chaos (see the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal that, again, tries to have it both ways and creates more chaos than order). As so much of the anti-gay rhetoric in the denomination is couched in the vocabulary of upholding church law, I am not sure how they can disapprove of the Appeals Court decision. Should they, it would only further demonstrate what I and others have known for decades – the issue is homophobia, not church law.
Schaefer has become a bit of a celebrity in UM circles, appearing at Annual Conferences, receiving a welcoming invitation from Bishop Carcano of the California-Pacific Conference, to which he has now transferred. I’m not a fan of this kind of thing; it’s little different from the network of conservative celebrities, and general celebrity pastors, we have in the denomination. That his case became the focal point of the divide over sexual minorities is also something about which I’m not that thrilled. Regardless of how you feel or think about the larger issue, making it about him rather than how the denomination relates to sexual minorities and expresses its beliefs about them creates a too-neat, press-friendly story of heroes and villains, of martyrs and sides who can claim victory and defeat. Rather than deal with the messy political process – something we keep avoiding – we in the United Methodist Church keep wanting this matter to be decided for us. With Schaefer’s reinstatement, this continues the illusion that someone else will deal with this matter.
The title of this post is not about Rev. Schaefer, as he can once again be called. It is about the discussion/argument/screaming match in the United Methodist Church over whether gays should be ordained, and whether United Methodist clergy can officiate at same-sex weddings in jurisdictions where this is legal. The Rev. Schaefer is reinstated. There is still much work to be done, hard, dirty, messy work of church politics. The Connectional Table is working on a proposal to bring before General Conference in two years. The question is – can it pass? Until we see such a proposal, no one knows if it even should! In the meantime, some celebrate, others rend their garments and wail and gnash their teeth, yet our denomination continues to dehumanize and discriminate. No church court decision, no administrative process, nothing can change that except the unpleasant work of facing this particular issue, and dealing with it head-on. That means continuing to hear schism talk. That means trying to change people’s minds. That means trying to get people to come together and work together to be the church. That means waiting and hoping the Connectional Table’s proposal is something people can support.
We are a worldwide church, a denomination of 11 people around the globe. None of this would be easy. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be all that important. Let’s be about being the church, which includes the unpleasant task of church politics. That is what’s next. That is what has always been next. The Schaefer case has been a distraction, a way to continue to fool ourselves that we don’t have to deal with this because someone else is dealing with it. All of us in the United Methodist Church, and each of us, have and has a duty to make clear how we all and each of us feel and feels, and how we would like this reflected in our Church law, in our practice of ministry, and in our life as a denomination. It isn’t easy or pretty, but no one else can do it for us.