Tim Schaefer married his boyfriend in 2007. He gave his father, United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer, a choice: Will you officiate at the wedding? Tim said that he didn’t want to put his father in a hard position, but at the same time, he thought it would seem disrespectful if he didn’t ask. So he gave his father the choice. As we know from news reports, his father decided to conduct the ceremony for his son and new son-in-law in Massachusetts. Reverend Schaefer lives in Pennsylvania, so he had hoped to keep the whole matter on the down low. And he had, until someone ratted him out.
Stories vary. Some say that the “whistleblower,” Jon Boger, did what he did out of revenge because his mother had a dispute with Reverend Schaefer and left her job as choir director as a result of it. Mr. Boger disputes this, and Reverend Schaefer doesn’t really care, nor does he hold any ill will towards his accuser.
For some, the case is open and shut. United Methodist Church law forbids solemnizing gay and lesbian unions. Reverend Schaefer broke this law, therefore he should be punished. And after a trial, he was convicted and put on 30 days suspension. To be right with his church again, he has to renounce what he did. But he refuses. During the trial, he spoke eloquently and often about the need to stand with his “LGBT brothers and sisters.”
This whole, sad story has all the making of a TV movie or maybe even a feature film. Perhaps someone is writing the screenplay now. We have all the trappings: an entrenched, traditionalist community, their new “hippy” pastor with leftist tendencies, a gay son, a long-hidden scandal revealed perhaps in a fit of revenge, and finally a man holding fast to his convictions at the risk of losing his church. Really, the story writes itself.
But any retelling of this tale should include a thorough and hard look at the United Methodist Church and its practices in regards to LGBT folks.
“We recognize that there are divisive opinions within the church,” said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the church’s executive branch. “This issue requires honest and ongoing conversation, as well as prayers as we seek greater understanding.”
Unfortunately, the church isn’t doing very well in this regard. The same article cites that various pastors have been disciplined, up to and including expulsion from the church, for either being gay or lesbian or for officiating at gay or lesbian marriage ceremonies. I’m sure that Bishop Wenner is speaking truthfully when she says that her church needs to have ongoing conversations and prayer to resolve the issue for themselves. However, these discussions mean little when members of their community continue to be treated like second-class citizens, subject to judgement and harsh retribution.
One telling point raised in the L.A. Times article is the concern that Reverend Schaefer’s liberalism alienates parishioners who then take their money to other churches. Money. How often does it come down to the bottom-line? If money were a real concern, though, they’d realize that their conservative social stances are ultimately costing them membership within the US in general.
Whether it be fear of losing money or fear of losing “traditional values,” the basis of the church’s position towards LGBT folks is fear. The basis of Reverend Schaefer’s position is love. Love for his gay children — he has three. Love for his LGBT sisters and brothers. And ultimately, I would say, a love for humanity in all its various forms. I find it sad and puzzling that a church would want to insert itself within a family dynamic, pit one family member against another, rather then build bridges, promote understanding and healing.
Reverend Schaefer said he began to open his eyes while studying in seminary. He could not square what he was exposed to with the church’s harsh stances on homosexuality. He saw real people, including family members, not abstractions. He didn’t conduct a wedding for an abstraction; he conducted one for his son and new son-in-law. Why would any church want to get in the way of that?
The United Methodist Church has a choice. It can continue to pit family members against each other, or it can rise above, evolve, as Reverend Schaefer did, and then move on. Acceptance is ultimately a much easier path to follow then resistance.
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