Several of you have asked me about the church trial in Pennsylvania. I’m sure there are many more who have been curious about the news reports you have heard. The reports have certainly not been positive press for the United Methodist Church. I thought I’d use this weekly channel of communication to give you some background and to share my perspective.
Frank Schaeffer is a United Methodist pastor who recently broke church law by officiating at a ceremony uniting his gay son with another man. Our legal guide is called The Book of Discipline. It says, “Ceremonies that cerebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Rev. Schaeffer knowingly broke this law. We have a clear process that must be followed in such a case. The goal of this process is always reconciliation. A trial is a last resort. Unfortunately, reconciliation could not be achieved and a trial was held. A jury of his peers found Rev. Schaeffer guilty. He has been suspended for 30 days. However, if after his suspension he cannot agree to follow the rules of our church, he will lose his ordination. From his post-trial comments, it would seem he will lose his ordination.
There are no winners here. I don’t know Frank Schaeffer, but from what I have read, he is a man of integrity who is following his conscience. Those who wrote the Book of Discipline and those charged with enforcing it are people of equal integrity who are also following their conscience. As I pointed out in a recent sermon (link below), there are Bible passages that support both sides.
Having spoken to many of you, I know you don’t all agree about this and the larger questions regarding homosexuality. There are five things I want to say:
1) It’s OK for us not to agree. That is one of the strengths of the United Methodist Church. Freedom of conscience is one thing we cherish.
2) Despite the sentence in our Book of Discipline about gay weddings (and another sentence saying that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained or appointed to serve our churches”), gays and lesbians are welcome in our churches. And our welcome is not one that expects you to change your sexual orientation. It is an unconditional welcome.
3) There were quite a few openly gay people in the last church I served. I am guessing in a church our size, we have several who are gay. I regret that for whatever reason you do not feel this is a safe enough place for you to be open about who you are. I pray for that to change.
4) Those who have the duty of enforcing our Book of Discipline don’t necessarily agree with all that it says. I know for a fact we have bishops and district superintendents who disagree with our church law regarding homosexuality but who still faithfully enforce that law as it is written. They take no pleasure in seeing good people like Rev. Schaeffer lose their ordination.
5) The rule I have always followed and that I would commend to you is simply this: When in doubt, err on the side of grace.
Maybe one day there will be a greater consensus among us on what is right and what is wrong. But what Jesus said is always right. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”