NORRISTOWN, Pa. — The United Methodist church defrocked a pastor from central Pennsylvania on Thursday for violating doctrine by officiating his son’s gay marriage, leaving the minister shocked and upset that he could be punished for an “act of love.”
Frank Schaefer immediately appealed the penalty, which he believed was meted out reluctantly by many members of the regional Board of Ordained Ministry.
“So many of them came to me and they shook my hand and some hugged me, and so many of them had tears in their eyes,” Schaefer said. “They said, ‘We really don’t want to do this, you know that, don’t you?’”
Board members declined to comment after the private meeting at church offices in Norristown, outside Philadelphia. But John Coleman, a spokesman for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the denomination, said Schaefer left officials no choice after defying the order of a religious jury to resign.
“When asked to surrender his credentials as required by the verdict, he refused to do so,” Coleman said. “Therefore, because of his decision, the board was compelled by the jury’s decision to deem his credentials surrendered.”
Schaefer has led a congregation in the town of Lebanon more than a decade. Earlier this year, a church member filed a complaint over Schaefer performing the 2007 wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal.
Although the Methodist church accepts gay and lesbian members, it rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and bars clergy from performing same-sex unions.
Last month, a church jury suspended Schaefer for 30 days and said he should use the time to decide whether he could uphold the church’s Book of Discipline. If he decided he could not, he was told to resign from the clergy by Thursday.
Schaefer said he told officials Thursday morning that he could not follow a book that he feels is contradictory and biased against gay people.
He refused to voluntarily surrender his credentials when asked by the board president.
“To which she said, ‘Well, we’re taking them.’ And that was the end of it,” Schaefer said.
The issue has split the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination amid a rapid shift in public opinion. Schaefer’s defrocking came on the same day that New Mexico legalized same-sex marriage, joining 16 other states and the District of Columbia; polls show that a majority of Americans now support it.
Most other Protestant denominations have decided their position on the issue one way or another. But the Methodists, with about 7.7 million members in the U.S. and many more overseas, remain divided. At their last national meeting in 2012, delegates reaffirmed the church’s 40-year-old policy on gays.
But hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and some of them face discipline for presiding over same-sex unions. Last month, in a public challenge to church rules, a retired Methodist bishop officiated at a wedding for two men in Alabama.
Schaefer had held out hope as late as Thursday morning that officials would have a change of heart.
“I said to myself, ‘You know, I just can’t see them taking my credentials.’ I mean, what I did was an act of love for my son. And they did anyhow,” he said.
Schaefer made his remarks at a gay-friendly, or “reconciling,” Methodist church in Philadelphia. Despite the designation, regional Methodist officials defrocked its associate minister Beth Stroud in 2004 after she told the congregation that she was in a committed lesbian relationship.
This week, Stroud told The Associated Press that public opinion has changed a lot since then. While she recalled receiving a lot of empathy and concern, there was also less surprise that she was put on trial and ultimately lost her credentials, Stroud said.
Schaefer seems to be receiving the same type of support but with a measure of disbelief as well, she said.
“(There’s) a lot more shock and surprise that in 2013 a mainstream church would put a pastor on trial for officiating at a same-sex wedding,” said Stroud, “particularly the wedding of his son.”
Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania and AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.