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The issue of gay marriage is dividing the United Methodist Church. With 8.3 million members in the U.S., Methodists comprise the nation’s third-largest Christian denomination.
This week, a jury of Methodist pastors convicted Pennsylvania pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer of violating church law when he officiated his son’s same-sex wedding six years ago.
At least four other Methodist pastors are also facing similar charges, including Thomas Ogletree, the retired dean of Yale Divinity School.
In Schaefer’s case, the church has suspended him from all ministerial duties for 30 days, at the end of which, he has to decide if he can uphold the church’s book of discipline in its entirety.
While the United Methodist Church does not allow same-sex marriage or gay ministers, it has also gone out of its way to affirm the dignity of gay people, and emphasized that church pastors do minister to them.
Schaefer speaks to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
On what he’s going to do at the end of 30 days
“Honestly, I’m struggling with this. Of course I can’t change my convictions. I cannot agree to uphold those discriminatory laws, especially in light of the pain that they have caused my own son Tim, my family and thousands and thousands of United Methodists that are in the LGBT community.”
On why he officiated his son’s same-sex wedding
“I knew that it was against the discipline. I did it out of love. It was definitely an act of love toward my son … It was almost like if I had said no to him on his request, it would have been like talking the talk but not walking the walk. So I knew I could be in trouble. I also wanted to be very up-front with my superiors, so I put in writing, I addressed the bishop and the cabinet that I had agreed to perform this same-sex marriage.”
On finding out his son was gay and considering suicide
“We affirmed him and we said to him, look, you are made in the image of God just like everybody else. You are beautiful in the eyes of God. This is how God has created you. Obviously you did not choose to be homosexual, so you are homosexual, that’s who you are and that’s who God made you to be. And later on, as our other gay children came out, we did the same with them.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The nation's third-largest church is in the midst of a debate over gay marriage. Earlier this week a jury of pastors from the United Methodist Church convicted a fellow pastor, Frank Schaefer, of violating church law when he officiated at his son's gay wedding. Four other Methodist pastors are also facing similar charges.
The United Methodist Church emphasizes the importance of pastors ministering to gays and lesbians, but it does not allow same-sex marriage, which brings us to the case of Pastor Schaefer, who has been suspended for 30 days to decide if he can uphold the church's rules in their entirety.
Reverend Schaefer joins us now from the studios of WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Welcome.
REVEREND FRANK SCHAEFER: Well, thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, what do you think of this judgment against you?
SCHAEFER: It's a very interesting sentence the jury came up with. The jury definitely realized that the eyes of the world were on them. What they did in my estimation is actually pretty brilliant. They really deferred their decision onto me. When I made that statement to them in my last address to the court, I said look, if I'm going to be a United Methodist minister tomorrow, I want you to know that I will be committed to the LGBT community, and I will not refuse ministry to them.
Honestly, when I made that statement to them, I actually expected to be defrocked, and instead they came back and said well, we see your honesty, and so we expect you to, you know, to come up with a decision by the end of the 30 days we give you to say that you will be willing to uphold those laws of the discipline, the United Methodist Church law, in light of your new calling.
HOBSON: Well, so what are you going to do? The ball's in your court now.
SCHAEFER: The ball's in my court, and honestly I'm struggling with this. Of course I can't change my convictions. I cannot agree to uphold those discriminatory laws, especially in light of the pain that they have caused my own son Tim, my family and thousands and thousands of United Methodists that are in the LGBT community.
HOBSON: You must have known, though, when you performed this wedding that you would be getting in trouble for it, that it would be a big decision on your part. What made you decide to do that in the first place?
SCHAEFER: I knew that it was against, you know, the discipline. I did it out of love. It wasn't - it was definitely an act of love toward my son. I wanted to affirm him in this decision as well as I had before. It was almost like if I had said no to him on his request, it would have been like talking the talk but not walking the walk.
So I knew I could be in trouble. I also wanted to be very up-front with my superiors, so I put in writing and addressed the bishop and the Cabinet that I had agreed to perform this same-sex marriage.
HOBSON: You have said that you did not talk about your views on homosexuality in the church early on in your ministry but that a certain point, a parent in the community called you anonymously about your son Tim, he was 16 at the time, told you that he was gay and was considering suicide. What did you do at that point?
SCHAEFER: That's correct. Actually when I received that phone call, that anonymous phone call, I was in shock. I was in denial. I did not see that coming. I did not think at that time that my son could be possibly gay. So I went home, I talked with my wife, and of course we talked to Tim. And he admitted at that point that he was gay and that yes, in the past, he had considered suicide, how he cried himself to sleep many, many times and asked God, you know, prayed to God to make him quote-unquote "normal," to take this away from him. And when that didn't happen, and he still felt this attraction to the same gender, he just thought it would be better for him to be gone and, you know, better for his family and his community because the messages he had heard, especially from the church, is that this was sinful, that this was not right and that he was a freak.
HOBSON: And you saw it as your responsibility to save him from this, or...
SCHAEFER: Oh my goodness we - yes, definitely. We affirmed him, and we said to him, look, you are made in the image of God just like everybody else. You are beautiful in the eyes of God. This is how God has created you. Obviously you did not choose to be homosexual, so you are homosexual, that's who you are, and that's who God made you to be. And later on, as our other gay children came out, we did the same with them.
HOBSON: How do you feel about what this has done to the church? I see that half of your congregation has left over this.
SCHAEFER: Yes, and it just tears me apart inside because I have poured my heart and soul into this, into the work of this church for 11 years. And I chose not to speak about my views on homosexuality and the wedding of my son because I knew that it was going to be divisive in an area that is rather conservative. And I just chose to be a good pastor to these people and just build this church, and it does tear me apart because, you know, I love these people.
I love every single one of them, you know, even those that took the stand against me. I love them dearly. So this is very painful for everybody, including myself.
HOBSON: Well, have you considered just leaving the church?
SCHAEFER: The United Methodist Church as a whole, or...?
SCHAEFER: Yes, that was a consideration, I guess, when I thought about doing this wedding or when I had made the commitment to my son to perform his wedding. It's not as easy as that. I hear that a lot, that people say well, if you don't agree with the policies, why don't you just go to another denomination. And, you know, it's not that easy.
I mean, it's - that would be like, you know, if I were a homosexual and lived in a state that doesn't allow for gay marriage, which I actually happen to live in a state that doesn't allow for that, I don't uproot myself and take myself out of my family and my surrounding, my friends and go to another state. I try to stay put. I have roots in the state.
And that's the same with the church. I mean, I've been a part of the Methodist Church for 20 years. I love this church, you know, except for this discriminatory law that we have. I love the church. There's so much potential, and there's so much good that the church is doing. My children grew up in this church. You know, all my children were baptized United Methodist.
You don't just go and uproot yourself and your family out of a faith tradition.
HOBSON: Well, so if you intend to stay in the church, the other option here is for the church to potentially change its rules on this issue. Do you think that will ever happen?
SCHAEFER: Oh, I definitely think that will happen. I don't think it'll happen anytime soon, given the special circumstances in the United Methodist Church where, you know, we're an international church, and we have a large representation from the African continent. And unfortunately, a number of those annual conferences are in areas that are very conservative theologically on this issue.
And so I don't expect this to happen overnight or anytime soon, but I think within the next 15 or 20 years, this will definitely change.
HOBSON: Pastor Frank Schaefer is with the Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for joining us.
SCHAEFER: Well thank you.
HOBSON: And we invite your thoughts at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.