(RNS) A jury of United Methodist pastors began hearing testimony Tuesday (Nov. 19) that will help determine if the Rev. Frank Schaefer will lose his clergy credentials for breaking church law by officiating at the same-sex marriage of his son in 2007.
The same jury found him guilty of two charges Monday night: performing a same-sex wedding and disobeying church law. The United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination with 8.3 million members, considers homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teachings.”
About 100 observers, many of them wearing rainbow stoles in support of gay rights, watched the proceedings, which may continue Wednesday.
The verdict came 12 hours after the emotional trial began at a United Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Pa. A jury of 13 pastors and two alternates heard testimony from Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa.; and Jon Boger, a former member of Schaefer’s church who filed the complaint against Schaefer.
Schaefer pleaded not guilty to the charges. He has said the church’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, calls for equality and compassion in ministering to all people.
“Maybe I compromised my ritual purity,” Schaefer testified Monday. “It is what Jesus called me to do for the sake of love.”
Homosexuality has been one of the most divisive issues confronting churches in recent decades and an ecclesial trial showcases those divisions in stark relief.
Hundreds of people sang, prayed and held signs in support of Schaefer outside the center, said Penny Springfield, who traveled from Binghamton, N.Y., with several other members of Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Binghamton.
Springfield’s pastor, the Rev. Steve Heiss, is awaiting word of a trial in the denomination’s Upper New York Annual Conference on charges that he, too, violated church law for presiding at same-sex weddings. Like Schaefer, Heiss has refused to promise he won’t take such action again.
Schaefer testified he knew he was violating church law, but said, “I couldn’t pass on the other side of the road like a Levite.”
During testimony, Boger said was motivated to file the charge against his former pastor because rumors about Schaefer officiating at a same-sex wedding undermined the integrity of the church. Boger also acknowledged his mother, the longtime musical director at the church, was recently dismissed.
Schaefer testified he informed his district supervisor that he presided at his son’s wedding but did not inform his congregation.
In closing arguments, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church, instructed the jury that their verdict would send a message to the church, the world and the media. He also said they would be “accountable for their decision in their final days,” Springfield said, a reference to eternal damnation.
The charges against Schaefer are among at least four open cases involving United Methodist clergy facing disciplinary action for defying church law on gay marriage and homosexuality.
Earlier this month, 36 United Methodist clergy and nine clergy from other traditions presided at a same-sex ceremony in Philadelphia to show support for Schaefer.
On Friday, the denomination’s Council of Bishops recommended charges be filed against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for presiding at the Oct. 26 wedding of two men.
“Sadly, the UMC continues to place legalism over love,” tweeted Methodists in New Directions, the New York Conference’s affiliate of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization working on behalf of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church.
Schaefer is not the first Methodist minister to be found guilty of breaking church law for officiating at same-sex weddings. Jimmy Creech, a former ordained elder in Nebraska, lost his clergy credentials in 1999 after a church trial found him guilty of presiding at gay weddings.
That same year, the Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago was also found guilty of officiating at a same-sex wedding and suspended for a year.
At a 2004 trial, the Rev. Beth Stroud of Philadelphia was found guilty of engaging in “practices that are incompatible with Christian teachings” after she told her congregation she was a lesbian living in a committed relationship. She eventually lost her clergy credentials.
More recently, the Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergywoman in Wisconsin, was found guilty of officiating at the union of a lesbian couple in 2011, and suspended for a month.
“I’m not surprised by the guilty verdict,” said Creech, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. “It was a foregone conclusion. The penalty will be much more interesting. I’m hoping the clergy on the jury will act with compassion and reason. If they are punitive to Frank, it will be a sign that LGBT members are not welcome in the church.”
YS/LEM END GADOUA