‘This will become the new normal’
Author: Nick O’Malley
One pastor’s journey has brought his church to a watershed. It all began with the suffering of his gay son, writes Nick O’Malley. With a bland act of office administration last Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court changed the fabric of American society.
The court posted a brief list of cases it had decided to hear during the coming term, and those that it would not. Among those it rejected were appeals by five conservative state attorneys-general against lower courts who had ruled that their bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional.
As a result, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
While victories for advocates of same-sex marriage are stacking up, in some American churches the divide is deepening.
One of those who has found himself at the centre of this culture war is a man with a faint German accent, a demeanour that ranges from cheerful to downright exuberant and – as the United Methodist Church is learning – a thick rebellious streak.
Reverend Frank Schaefer never planned to be an activist, though that is what he became one day in 2000 when he received a chilling phone call in his church in small-town Pennsylvania.
On the line was a church member who did not give her name. She told him that his teenage son Timothy was gay. She feared that he was considering suicide. That evening Schaefer and his wife Brigitte asked Tim if it was true, and his story broke their hearts.
Tim had known he was gay for years and his sexuality had tormented him. He remembered going to a church camp with Schaefer and sitting in on a debate over sin and sexuality. The prevailing sentiment was that homosexuals would not enter heaven. In the years afterwards Tim had regularly prayed for God to make him straight, then wept himself to sleep.
“What really, really broke my heart was that my son was going through this for years and really being in agony,” Schaefer recalls today. “He was feeling spiritual abuse by his own church.”
Schaefer had long believed that Methodist doctrine on homosexuality was wrong, that human sexuality was not a choice and therefore could not be a sin. He told Tim that he was created in God’s image, that God loved him and was proud of him.
In the coming years two more of the Schaefers’ four children came out, each finding the process easier than the last.
“When my daughter came out it was no surprise, we were like, ‘what took you so long?’ ” Schaefer says.
“This is how it should be, young people should have complete support from their families, their churches. This will become the new normal.”
In 2006 Tim, by then at Boston University, called his parents to tell them he was getting married to his partner Bobby. The ceremony was to be held in Massachusetts, which by then recognised gay marriage. He wanted his father to marry them.
Schaefer was thrilled. It was only after he put the phone down that he realised he would be breaking church law. He notified his bishop, and sympathetic church elders let the matter quietly rest.
Over the coming years Schaefer worked to expand his small conservative church. He added a second service on Sundays and his progressive ministry began attracting a younger and more diverse congregation.
Eventually a conservative group began actively lobbying for Schaefer’s dismissal. The reverend, it was said, had been seen having sex with a janitor in a bathroom. He was embezzling church funds.
The church investigated and dismissed the allegations, but it was soon fielding daily complaints. Finally one of the so-called “concerned group” drove to Massachusetts to secure a transcript of Tim’s wedding licence. Schaefer was charged with performing a gay marriage and breaking the discipline of the church. His trial was held in the same gymnasium where his son Tim had learned that he was not to be allowed into heaven all those years earlier. National media attended.
The church’s lawyer, the Reverend Christopher Fisher, told the jury that the complainant, Jon Boger, felt betrayed when he found out that Schaefer, who had baptised his children and buried his grandparents, had presided over a gay wedding.
At the urging of his family, Schaefer and his counsel had carefully drafted and rehearsed a statement of contrition.
He would not disavow gay marriage, but asked if he would perform one again he would simply say he could not predict the future. If he got the tone right he just might keep his job and his ministry.
But looking into the crowd behind the defence table, a crowd that included not only his family – his son – but supporters from around the country and from many denominations, Schaefer found he could not read the statement.
“All I could see at that moment was the harm the church had done to my child, to my son Tim, and how he went through agony and had a plan in place to kill himself,” he says. “All of a sudden these words bubbled out and they were just right.”
Schaefer began by telling the court about the first openly gay woman he welcomed to his congregation. He described how she had suffered a stroke and to walk she had to audibly instruct her brain to move.
“She stepped – literally stepped all the way up the aisle toward the altar saying ‘step, step, step’ every step of the way,” he told the court. “When people around her saw that – and I am talking about some people that were opposed to homosexuals to being a part of the church – I noticed that as she approached the altar area, there was sobbing in the room.
“This act of coming toward the altar of this young lesbian sister but wanting communion so badly that she was there even in her illness changed the minds and hearts of many that morning.”
As Schaefer told this story, many in the courtroom wept too.
“I found myself being transformed into something that was totally new to me,” he said. “I became an advocate for gays, lesbians, transgenders and bisexual people. And I embraced that because I saw that as a new calling from God.
“I was called to be a minister by God first and by the United Methodist Church after that. I have to minister to those who hurt. And that’s what I’m doing.
“So before you make a decision, please know that I will continue to minister to all people equally regardless of their gender, nationality, race, social status, economic status or sexual orientation.
“We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians. We have to stop harming beloved children of God.”
“Are you willing to repent of your actions you have been found guilty of and renounce your disobedience to the discipline of the United Methodist Church?” Fisher asked him.
“I cannot,” said Schaefer.
“Will you promise from henceforth never to perform another same-sex wedding and ceremony and from henceforth to uphold all the provisions of the Discipline?”
“I cannot make that statement,” said Schaefer.
As the jury left the courtroom a crashing noise erupted. Some of Schaefer’s supporters were upending chairs, symbolically re-enacting Jesus’ overturning of the tables in the Temple.
Rather than defrocking him, the court suspended him for 30 days, to consider whether or not he felt he could abide by the Book of Discipline in its entirety. Or as Schaefer puts it, he was given 30 days to renounce gay marriage or defrock himself. He refused, and a month later his credentials as a United Methodist Church pastor were removed, but the legal fight continues.
Schaefer’s counsel successfully appealed last June, arguing that he was being punished for an offence he had not yet committed. He says with a laugh that he was “refrocked”.
In turn the prosecutor Fisher, who appears determined to prevent any softening of the church’s stance on homosexuality, has appealed that decision. On October 22 the church’s highest legal body, the Judicial Council, will convene in Memphis, Tennessee, with representatives from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin and North America, to finally decide Schaefer’s fate.
Both his supporters and opponents believe that a decision in his favour will have a direct impact on the church’s General Conference, whose next quadrennial meeting is next year.
The General Conference is the only body that has the authority to change church doctrine and the Book of Discipline.
And it is not just the Methodist Church that may be affected. Schaefer counts among his supporters members of all denominations, including Catholics already emboldened by the conciliatory language of Pope Francis.
The revolution that Schaefer began in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, could spread far.
Asked if he is fearful about the outcome of the coming trial, he says that he is not: “The one thing I have learnt through all this is if you stick with your conscience, good things happen.”