SPRING CITY, Pa. — Rev. Frank Schaefer gets to keep calling himself a Methodist pastor – at least for the next 30 days.
The United Methodist clergyman convicted of breaking church law for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding was suspended late Tuesday, and ordered by a jury of his fellow pastors to surrender his credentials in a month if he can’t bring himself to adhere to the laws of the church’s Book of Discipline.
Schaefer said he had no intention of changing his mind about the church’s teaching on homosexuality, declaring he would perform more gay marriages if asked.
“I feel I have to be an advocate, an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people,” Schaefer told reporters after learning his sentence, adding he expects to be defrocked when his 30-day suspension is up.
Before the punishment was announced, Schaefer, who was convicted for presiding over his son’s 2007 wedding ceremony in Massachusetts, told the jury that he is unrepentant.
Rather than beg for mercy, the pastor upped the stakes.
The church “needs to stop judging people based on their sexual orientation,” he told jurors. “We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians.”
After the jury pronounced its sentence, Schaefer’s supporters began overturning chairs in the courtroom – symbolizing the biblical story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers – and held an impromptu communion service. A few supporters scuffled briefly with the church’s trial staff.
Schaefer’s trial rekindled debate within the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination over church policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but it rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Schaefer donned a rainbow-colored stole on the witness stand and told jurors it symbo lized his commitment to the cause.
“I will never be silent again,” he said, as some of his supporters wept in the gallery. “This is what I have to do.”
Jon Boger, who filed the initial complaint against Schaefer, was outraged by the pastor’s recalcitrance. The career Naval officer grew up in Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, the church that Schaefer has led for 11 years.
“Frank Schaefer sat here and openly rebuked the United Methodist Church, its policies, standards and doctrines,” Bolger said when called as a rebuttal witness. “He should no longer be in service as a minister of the United Methodist Church, not at Iona, not anywhere else.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Methodists’ prosecutor called former members of Schaefer’s church who said his conduct split the congregation, and experts who said the punishment should serve as a deterrent to other like-minded clergy.
Christina Watson said her family left Schaefer’s church because they no longer wan ted to be “subjected to the preaching and teaching” of Schaefer.
“To me, it wasn’t a good Christian example for ministers to say it’s OK to break the rules of your church,” she testified.
Schaefer had previously testified that he performed his son’s 2007 wedding in Massachusetts out of love, not a desire to flout church teaching on homosexuality.
But Tuesday’s testimony made clear he has had a change of heart.
“I have to minister to those who hurt, and that’s what I’m doing,” said Schaefer.
The prosecutor, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, invited Schaefer to “repent of your actions” and pledge never again to perform a homosexual union.
“I cannot,” Schaefer replied.
His son, Tim Schaefer, told jurors he knew he was putting his father in a difficult position by asking him to officiate his wedding. But he concluded he would hurt his father’s feelings if he didn’t ask.
Schaefer said he hoped his father’s trial would start a larger conversation in the denomination.
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