At its last General Conference two years ago, United Methodist Church leaders voted against changing church policy on gay marriage. As its had in the four decades or so that the policy has been challenged, church leaders upheld the long-standing policy barring clergy from presiding over same-sex marriages.
On Tuesday, the church seemingly hit pause on the debate.
In a stunning decision, a church judicial appeals panel forgave one of its former pastors for breaking the stringent rule that clergy will not marry same-sex couples.
A nine-member church panel overturned the defrocking of former Lebanon County minister Frank Schaefer, who in November, was stripped of church credentials for presiding over the gay marriage of his son in 2007.
Almost immediately, the decision begged the question: Is this a change of course for the 7-million strong denomination?
Schaefer, who has become a national advocate for marriage equality in and outside his church, hailed the decision as a personal victory and one for the greater United Methodist LGBT community.
“What a day it is for them to see a very strong signal coming from an official branch of the church saying that there is change,” he said. “I feel the message is we are starting to listen to the pain this homophobic language has caused you, the harm it has caused. I feel this is a very strong message.”
Schaefer is among a handful of pastors within the denomination that have recently – and stridently – challenged church regulations in the Book of Discipline.
Even among that small cadre, the church has sent mixed signals.
In 2011, the Rev. Amy DeLong was convicted of performing same-sex marriages. The Wisconsin pastor, a lesbian, was also found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
DeLong on Tuesday praised the appeals council for, as she said, righting the grievous and unconscionable penalty that been previously doled out to Schaefer.
In addition to being stripped of his church credentials, Schaefer had served a 30-day suspension.
DeLong fears that her church will backslide rather than continuing with the momentum towards more inclusive equality, but recognizes that Tuesday’s decision sends a huge message.
“I think the church has gone from gotcha to grace,” DeLong said. “There can be backsliding but the thing about the United Methodist Church is that it frequently repents for its past sins on whole groups of people it has harmed. It’s clear a day of repentance from its LGBT children is coming. The only question is how many lives will be harmed before that day comes.”
The head of the church for the region on Tuesday vowed to abide by the committee’s decision and return Schaefer to active service as an ordained clergy member of her conference. Bishop Peggy Johnson, head of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware (regional) conferences, also appealed for common ground among her church community.
“This has been a challenging judicial process, and I express my heartfelt appreciation for the diligent efforts made to ensure due process and uphold our United Methodist Discipline with respect, understanding and compassion for all involved,” she said.
Johnson also pointed out that the decision to appeal Tuesday’s ruling from the appeals committee rested with church counsel, the Rev. Christopher Fisher.
“I pray confidently that our church may emerge stronger, more hopeful and more faithful to both its biblical grounding and its prophetic calling, as it continues to make disciples of Jesus Christ and equip them for God’s transforming work in the world,” Johnson said in a written statement.
The issue of gay marriage is certain to figure prominently in 2016 when the church’s General Assembly reconvenes in Portland, Oreg.
But even those who stand behind Schaefer doubt just how far the cause for marriage equality will go in the church.
The Rev. Coryn Pena, of Willistown United Methodist outside West Chester, sees Tuesday’s decision as just another step in a long process – and not a broader signal. But Pena is concerned that the issue has become divisive in her church and threatens to splinter it.
“The conversation is becoming more intense,” said Pena, who served as a juror in Schaefer’s church trial in November. “I personally would not like to see the church split over this. There’s been lot of conversation about the United Methodist Church splitting along this line – supporting LGBTQ rights and not supporting them.”
Pena who opposed the conviction of Schaefer and said the result of his trial “made me sick to my stomach,” noted that her church was a global church, with a growing and conservative contingency in Africa. That consideration, she explained, will continue to factor heavily in the gay marriage debate.
“When we make decisions, we have to make decisions based on not just what the church in the U.S. thinks but what the United Methodist Church in Africa thinks as well,” Pena explained.
Any changes to the Book of Discipline must withstand a full delegate count, and that includes a conservative and growing number of delegates from Africa, pitted against those representing the decreasing ranks in the U.S. and Europe.
“They are much more conservative when it comes to changing these laws,” she said.
Head of a conservative movement within the church, Tom Lambreche, hopes the church will appeal Tuesday’s ruling.
A concession, he said, is not likely to be embraced by all.
“It will frustrate a lot of members who will see the decision as an inability of the church to hold clergy accountable to our way of discipleship,” said Lambreche, head of the Good News Movement. “In some areas of the country, a vast majority of clergy would be very frustrated. In other areas not so much.”
Lambreche agreed that the church is sending mixed messages on its stance towards the LGBT community. While it bars gay marriage, the denomination welcomes gay and lesbian parishioners; and in April, it extended same-sex partner benefits to employees.
“I think the church should uphold its teaching on marriage as being the union of one man, one woman and other relations outside marriage should not be sanctioned by the church,” Lambreche said.
Given the basis of this current debate, Lambreche has real worries that his church can survive the division.
“Because this issue relates back to the authority of Scripture many of us consider it be an essential issue,” he said. “Because of that, it may not be possible to keep the church together given such a deep disagreement.”
Schaefer is certain of a few things: For one, his future is bright. He may not be able to return to his Lebanon County church, Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, which now has installed a permanent pastor, but he is considering other offers, including to head a congregation in California.
He also is certain that his church, here on out, will avoid trials such as his.
“So much has changed in society and around the church since my trial,” he said Tuesdays. “I think my trial really was a PR nightmare for the church.”
DeLong recognizes that given the demographics of delegates at the 2016 General Assembly, the chances of her church amending rules and bylaws is far-fetched, but she is emboldened by the appeal’s committee decision.
“I do think there is new sense of boldness, of courage,” she said. “I think people are saying these restrictions, this discriminatory language needs to go. I think there is an emboldened spirit among pastors to do the right thing. It’s long over due. I’m glad to see it.”