Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Kind of a Church Are We?

“Woe to you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” 
Matthew 23:27-28

Pastor Frank Schaefer of the Zion United Methodist Church in Iona, Pennsylvania will go on trial next month for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding in Massachusetts six years ago. His actions almost slipped past the six year statute of limitations which the United Methodist Church has for such offenses, but a parishioner filed charges just before the clock ran out.

Our United Methodist Discipline (a book of by-laws) prohibits pastors from officiating at same sex marriages or blessing same sex relationships.

This isn’t the Inquisition. The worst case scenario for Pastor Frank is that he will lose his clergy credentials. But it’s bad enough.

Over the past few weeks, many of my colleagues have posted Facebook links to vigils for Pastor Frank or stories about the church trial. In response, someone asked, “What kind of a church puts people on trial?"

And that is the key question. What kind of a church are we? Or maybe more accurately, what kind of a church do we look like?

I could give a long explanation about United Methodist polity and the function of church trials in protecting the rights of clergy from overzealous bishops and district superintendents, but that really isn’t the point.

Pastor Frank’s son Tim came out in 2000, after contemplating suicide because his years of praying had not changed his sexuality, and he feared that he would be ostracized by his family and his faith community. Rev. Schaefer chose to affirm his son by officiating at his wedding, and now he is on trial for that.

As the political commentators like to say, the optics are not good.

Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, an outspoken opponent of equal marriage, told a reporter, “Sadly, our church is once again being led down the path of a costly and divisive trial by a pastor who chose to disregard the prayerful and consistent teaching of our church that Christian marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman. As a father, I share Rev. Schaefer’s desire to affirm his son, but there are ways of doing so that do not require a pastor to break the Discipline and the covenant that all United Methodist pastors agree to uphold.”

I can only imagine what a wonderful affirmation that would be.

Even if we don’t care about the civil rights issues, and even if we assume that Tim Schaefer would have gotten over his disappointment if his father had refused to officiate at his wedding, this would still be very bad.

I am a United Methodist for lots of very good reasons. I believe in John Wesley’s theology of grace and his emphasis on practical spirituality. But this is the church at its worst. It makes us look stupid or irrelevant, or both.


  1. Thank you Rev. Bill.
    It is why I feel so comfortable and comforted in the Methodist Church since I first went to a service with my wife, SusanJoe, in New Jersey. Perhaps those who judge should simply not "recognize" the ceremony and start working with others on having the bylaws amended, as difficult as that may be. So that all believers can join together and try to live as Jesus asked us to, with compassion.
    Lee Couturier

  2. Sadly, if one must ask "What kind of a church are we?"...

    ... isn't it already too late?

    As the society moves into a more compassionate place - at least on this issue - the Methodist Church doubles down and puts pastors on trial. The old joke about stopping digging when you're already in a hole applies, but in this case it's the UMC's grave.

    Will Jesus really mind losing them?

  3. Trial- this is no stinking trial! This is a homicide of one of Jesus' children!