Less than a month before the statute of limitations ran out, someone Frank Schaefer hardly knew filed charges against him for officiating at his own son’s wedding
It was an act of love.
While the Rev. Frank Schaefer had officiated many weddings during his years as a Methodist minister, a particular one he performed in 2007 resonated with emotion. It was his gay son’s, and it was in violation of his church’s law that prohibits same-sex marriages.
Disregarding that law, Schaefer led Tim and his soon-to-be husband through the ceremony that six years later would have critical consequences.
“I did what I had to do,” Schaefer said in an interview with Dallas Voice. Schaefer will speak at Cathedral of Hope on Feb. 9. “I love him, and my wife, and I embrace him.”
Departing from the sermons so many religious leaders heap on their gay children, Schaefer told Tim, “This is how God created you.” So, when Tim asked his father to perform the wedding ceremony, he said, “I’m honored.”
Schaefer said he informed his bishop of the marriage through a letter, but he didn’t receive a response. At that time, he was in charge of a church in Pennsylvania, and his son’s wedding took place in Massachusetts. Although he didn’t tell his congregation about the wedding, rumors did circulate. Then, 26 days before the six-year statue of limitations would have expired, a former congregant filed charges against Schaefer.
That member, a Naval officer who Schaefer had met only a few times over the years, traveled to Massachusetts, got a copy of the marriage license with Schaefer’s signature as the officiant and filed the complaint. Schaefer’s church groaned as a divisive and painful process unfolded.
More than 90 percent of the congregation supported Schaefer — even those who didn’t believe in same-sex marriage. They respected their minister for putting his family first and his taciturn approach to the charges.
“That started to change when people asked my position,” Schaefer said. “They thought I’d say I’d made a mistake, apologize and seek forgiveness.”
The situation deteriorated, though, when the charges and pending church trial hit the news.
“It was a train wreck in slow motion,” Schaefer said.
The trial resulted in a 30-day suspension, but when Schaefer proved to be completely unrepentant about his action and firmly on the side of equal rights, he was defrocked. But his congregation didn’t only lose their minister, they lost their unity.
“So many broken relationships,” Schaefer said. “Families not talking to each other.”
He said it would be great if the Methodist Church would give individual churches the freedom to do what each believes. Instead, current church teaching says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, although gays and lesbians may be full participating members of a congregation.
It’s hypocritical, Schaefer said, to ask those gay and lesbian members to donate funds for the church and then use that money to prosecute ministers who support their equality in the church.
He said the British United Methodist Church is currently polling its members on performing same-sex weddings once it becomes legal in Great Britain and Wales this year, but no congregation or pastor would be forced to perform those ceremonies. A day after he was defrocked, Schaefer said a bishop in California asked him to come and minister in her region.
Schaefer said Tim has struggled with the fallout. He told his father that asking him to perform the ceremony was one of the hardest questions he’s ever asked. Since the charges were brought, he’s had feelings of guilt.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Schaefer told his son.
He said he’s proud his son is active in the fight for inclusion, writing to bishops, going on shows to discuss the issue and remaining an active member of the church in a reconciling congregation.
Since he was defrocked, 15 other Methodist clergy have performed same-sex weddings. The Rev. Bill McElvaney, retired pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in North Dallas, said he also will begin performing ceremonies.
“If we have thousands doing ceremonies, they can’t put us all on trial,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said his trial was budgeted at $100,000 for the church, although it came in under budget.
After the trial, the Naval officer who filed the charges shook Schaefer’s hand and told him it wasn’t personal. Schaefer said that was healing to hear, but he wondered about someone who would take the time to travel to another state and research which jurisdiction a marriage license was filed in to intervene in a matter that was years old.
The next general conference of the United Methodist Church is in 2016. Schaefer said the subject will undoubtedly be discussed and voted on again.
“How many more states will have marriage equality by then?” Schaefer wondered. “A majority?”
He said that majority will put pressure on the church to change its policy. But he’s not entirely optimistic.
“I honestly believe it will lead to a split in the church,” Schaefer said.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer will speak at Cathedral of Hope, 5910 Cedar Springs Road on Feb. 9 at the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services and will appear on Lambda Weekly on 893. KNON-fm at 1 p.m.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 31, 2014.