Church Trial Shines Spotlight on Denomination’s Ambivalence

The United Methodist Church’s ambivalence over homosexuality was front and center at the recent trial

Meanwhile, challenges to gay policies have become increasingly public and vehement in recent months.  Tuesday night, United Methodist clergy said they will officiate at same-sex weddings on Schaefer’s behalf. Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., was found guilty on two charges for presiding at his son’s 2007 wedding to another man. The jury convicted him of officiating at a gay wedding and showing “disobedience to the order and discipline of the church.”


(RNS) The United Methodist Church was not on trial at a recently concluded courtroom hearing outside of Philadelphia. But the denomination’s ambivalence over homosexuality took center stage.

At its conclusion Tuesday (Nov. 19), a jury of 13 clergy suspended the Rev. Frank Schaefer from ministry for 30 days and told him that if he cannot uphold the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist rule book, including its provision on gays, he must leave the ministry.

“It reveals the struggle that we’re having as a church around the issues,” said the Rev. Gary MacDonald, a United Methodist minister and director of Advanced Ministerial Studies at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

“We do have a history of wrestling with who we are and how we are responding to God. I think that’s happening now.”

Schaefer’s trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son is the first since the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 2012 upheld its 40-year-old rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids the ordination of “avowed” homosexuals and bans clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages or holding such ceremonies in its churches.

At least four other clergy cases are headed to church trials as an increasing number boldly perform such weddings in defiance of the rule book. The dispute pits two camps against each other: those who argue for inclusion and focus on the church’s commitment to equality and justice for gays, lesbians and transgender people, and those who stress rules and accountability.

MacDonald said movements on both sides of the issue are likely to continue advocating their positions in the run-up to the 2016 worldwide General Conference, when the church could change the laws in its Book of Discipline.

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