The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister, was stripped of his clerical credentials on Thursday for violating church law by presiding at his sons same-sex wedding. The punishment, imposed by the United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania, was requested by the church prosecutor to deter other ministers from blessing same-sex marriages.
But far from intimidating others, the trial and defrocking of Mr. Schaefer have galvanized a wave of Methodist ministers to step forward to disobey church prohibitions against marrying and ordaining openly gay people.
Members of the United Methodist Church, the nations third-largest Christian denomination, have been battling bitterly over homosexuality for four decades. The church now faces an increasingly determined uprising by clergy members and laypeople who have refused to cede, even after losing the most recent votes, at the Methodist convention last year, on proposals to change church teaching.
After 40 years of playing nice and attempting a legislative solution, we will not wait any longer, said Matt Berryman, a former Methodist pastor who said he turned in his credentials because he is gay. He now serves as the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist gay rights group.
In Philadelphia last month, 36 Methodist ministers recited the Declaration of Marriage on the steps of a Methodist church for two gay men in a 25-year relationship. In New York, Methodist clergy members have been triumphantly posting accounts on a blog of the same-sex marriages they have been performing.
And in what is considered a brazen act of church boundary-crossing, a retired San Francisco bishop, Melvin Talbert, flew in October to Birmingham, Ala., where same-sex marriage is not legal, to conduct a church ceremony for two gay men against the will of the local bishop. Bishops are considering bringing ecclesiastical charges against him.
Church conservatives, however, say they have the momentum. About a half-dozen more ministers are facing church trials, and the defrocking of Mr. Schaefer proves to them that church juries have the courage of their convictions. In addition, they say the church is losing members in its liberal-leaning regions and growing in conservative regions.
John Lomperis, the United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think tank, said the same-sex weddings performed by Methodist clergy were publicity stunts that were backfiring.
Its very noisy, but I just dont see it as being a sustainable campaign in the long run, Mr. Lomperis said in an interview. Its like burning down a house to try to take it over from the residents.
Mr. Schaefer is hardly the first Methodist minister to be defrocked for disobeying church teachings on homosexuality. Jimmy Creech was stripped of his credentials in 1999 for performing a same-sex ceremony. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, a lesbian living with her partner, was defrocked in 2005.
Mr. Schaefer said at a news conference on Thursday after his defrocking, Here we are 10 years later, and they are doing the same thing.
He added, The church needs to recognize that things have changed and times are changing and people are changing.
Mr. Schaefer has four children, three of whom are gay. He performed the wedding for his son, Tim, in Massachusetts in 2007 after same-sex marriage was legalized there.
Mr. Schaefer, who is 52, had been serving as the pastor of a small church in Lebanon, Pa., for 11 years when charges were brought against him this year, weeks before the churchs statute of limitations was set to expire. The man who brought the complaint was the son of a choir director whom Mr. Schaefer had removed, according to news reports and confirmed by Mr. Schaefer in an interview on Thursday.
The churchs Book of Discipline, which contains its law and doctrine, forbids same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people, and says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Efforts to amend the Book of Discipline have been defeated by increasingly wide margins at the churchs quadrennial conferences as delegates representing the churchs growing branch in Africa have bolstered the votes of conservative Methodists in the United States.
Mr. Schaefer was found guilty last month by a 13-member jury of pastors of disobedience and violating the Book of Discipline. He was given 30 days to decide whether he would comply with church law.
At a short meeting Thursday morning at the churchs conference center in Norristown, Pa., Mr. Schaefer appeared before about 45 members of the churchs ministry board. He was asked, Will you uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety?
He answered, Unfortunately, I cannot.
In an interview afterward, Mr. Schaefer said that as he got into the car to go home, his wife noticed he was shaking. For 20 years, Ive served this church, and it has now put me outside, he said. I find myself totally shunned, excluded. It just felt awful.
He said he would not consider leaving the Methodist Church for a denomination that has changed its teaching on homosexuality.
Its not that easy when a church is your spiritual home, he said. All my children have been baptized in the United Methodist Church. I dont know how to be a minister out of the United Methodist Church.
He said his lawyers had already filed an appeal with a judicial body akin to a church appellate court.
Those watching the trial were stunned when Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads nearly 900 United Methodist churches in Pennsylvania and who is Mr. Schaefers superior, posted a note on her blog this week, saying that she believed the prohibitions on gay ordination and marriage in the Book of Discipline were discriminatory.
The prohibitions, Bishop Johnson continued, taken together with the churchs message of inclusion, has led to confusion by many from the outside of the church wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouth.