In 2013, the reality that Reverend Frank Schaefer, pastor at Zion United Methodist Church (UMC) of Iona in Pennsylvania, will be forced to stand trial on 18 November for officiating his son’s 2007 same-sex nuptials is not only wrong-headed – it is also wrong-hearted.
‘I love him so much and didn't want to deny him that joy. I had to follow my heart,’ Schaefer told the New York Daily News.
The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the Methodist Church, however, wants to drill home to Schaefer and his allies that he – irrespective of familial love or Christian belief – blatantly and willfully violated the church’s law book, the Book of Discipline, prohibiting same-sex marriages.
Sadly, little has changed in the UMC on this issue since the well-publicized trial of Reverend Jimmy Creech in Nebraska.
In 1998 the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled Creech, a heterosexual ally, violated church law by blessing the union of two lesbians. Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, Creech’s contract as pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Omaha was terminated. The following year, Creech was in the hot seat again for blessing the holy union of two gay men.
The jury felt this act of ecclesiastical disobedience was of biblical proportions and Creech was defrocked and lost his ministerial credentials. However many conservative United Methodist clerics believed Creech got off easy and thought a harsher decision, banishment from the church, should have been rendered.
When asked by The Advocate that year why he continued to marry same-sex couples while knowing the church’s position, Creech rightly stated the following: ‘A cultural prejudice... has been institutionalized in the church. The position of the church is wrong, it’s unjust. It’s discriminatory.
‘It isolates a part of our population, part of the brothers and sisters of the human family. It denies their humanity, considers their own humanity to be somewhat unnatural or immoral or sinful.’
The UMC is contradictory in its policies concerning LGBTQ worshippers. While it states we have and are of the same sacred worth as heterosexuals, and it is committed to the ministry of all people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, the church also views queer sexualities as sinful.
The Book of Discipline states sexuality is ‘God’s good gift to all persons’ and people are ‘fully human only when their sexuality is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society’.
However, this rule is not applicable to LGBTQs.
Since the church’s conservative and liberal wings merged in 1968 to become the UMC, it has implemented stricter positions against us. In 1972, for example, UMC delegates inserted in The Book of Discipline that as a church body, ‘We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.’
In 1984, the delegates barred from its general conference clerics who were ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’. And in 1996, the UMC gave the ecclesiastical order that prohibited ‘ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,’ which was affirmed by the Methodists’ high court in 1998.
The church also maintains its policy requiring heterosexual clerics to remain faithful in their marriages, and for both unmarried heterosexual and homosexual clerics to be celibate.
However, the UMC’s exclusionary language and practices toward LGBTQ people will not stop those of us who feel called to ministry. If anything, it confirms our calling that much more. And not all churches allow homophobic churchgoers or ecclesial powers to stand in the way.
While it is clear the UMC is not in lockstep with the changing societal tide toward LGBTQ acceptance, it is also not in lockstep with its own more progressive arm of ‘reconciling and inclusive’ congregations.
Union United Methodist Church (UUMC), a predominately African American congregation located in Boston’s South End – the epicenter of the city's LGBTQ community – is one of them. And it is the one institution least expected to be lauded among LGBTQ people of African descent because of the black church’s notorious history of homophobia. But UUMC is a movement, and it’s an example not just regional to black churches in Boston.
Since June 2011 more than 100 Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry gay couples in defiance of the denomination’s ban on same-sex unions.
Approximately one out of nine Methodist clerics signed a statement pledging to open their churches to LGBTQ couples that stated: ‘We repent that it has taken us so long to act… We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].’
Knowing where Methodist clerics in New England stand on same-sex marriages, Schaefer officiated his son’s nuptials here in Massachusetts.
The public trials of Creech and soon Schaefer are disciplinary means of control to evoke fear among our allies and us.
While UMC’s ultimate objective is to reinforce ecclesiastical heterosexism, it also keeps the church itself trapped in its sins of both homophobia and inhospitality. This recent public act of religious intolerance by the church not only feeds into the existing climate of queer-bashing in this society, but it also has LGBTQs constantly questioning their self-worth and relationship with the church and with God.
‘We just love him so much it was an honor to be asked. Had I said no to him, it would have negated all the affirmations we gave him for all those years... that we believe you are just as worthy and precious in God’s sight as anybody else,’ Schaefer told the Patriot-News of Central Pennsylvania.
As LGBTQ people we must know this religious intolerance and spiritual abuse are antithetical to the social gospel of Jesus Christ: all people under God have the same sacred worth – even if the United Methodist Church doesn’t religiously practice it.