Defrocked by the United Methodist Church six months ago for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, Frank Schaefer has gained a following among reformers who want the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination to loosen its policies on homosexuality.
He’s told his story dozens of times to largely sympathetic audiences around the country: How his son came out to him as a teenager who had contemplated suicide. How he hid the 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation, fearing it would sow division. How he finally decided – in the midst of his high-profile church trial last fall – to become an outspoken advocate for gay rights at a time when his denomination is bitterly divided on the issue.
After his trial and conviction, I thought I had lost everything, recalled Schaefer, 52. There was a moment of pain and depression, and the next thing I knew, I was catapulted. I have more opportunities now than I ever did.
Except the right to call himself a Methodist minister.
I would like to get my credentials back, said Schaefer, who will appear before a church panel in Baltimore this week to argue that his punishment was improper. I’m hoping for a re-frocking.’
In little more than six months, Schaefer has become a public face of the movement to change church policy on homosexuals. The Methodist church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects sex outside of heterosexual marriage as incompatible with Christian teaching. Openly gay people may not serve as clergy, and ministers are forbidden from performing same-sex marriages.
Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, while traditionalists say they have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.
Schaefer could have avoided the trial – and, after his conviction, kept his ordination – by promising he wouldn’t perform another same-gender wedding. But he refused, declaring he would officiate over more gay marriages if asked.
His stand galvanized gay rights activists within the church, and he’s become a fixture on the lecture circuit. But Schaefer still considers himself a country preacher, and he wants another congregation to call his own.
He will argue before a nine-member Committee on Appeals on Friday that his defrocking was improper because it was based on the assumption that he would break church law in the future.