The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist clergyman convicted of breaking church law for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding, speaks during a news conference, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Schaefer plans to defy a church order to surrender his credentials for performing a same-sex wedding. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Updated: January 25, 2014 6:17AM
When gay marriage came to Illinois, signed into law by Gov. Quinn last month, supporters of this sea change in social conventions assured opponents that it would in no way infringe on religious freedoms. No religious group would be forced to condone or sanctify gay marriages.
Now along comes a United Methodist pastor who, by defying his church’s ban on gay marriage, has made clear where the real threat to religious opposition to gay marriage lies — not from without, but from within. When religious doctrine (or, for that matter, the views of “Duck Dynasty” reality star Phil Robertson) contradict an increasingly indisputable reality — that homosexuality is normal, natural and never going back in the closet — something’s got to give.
Last month, a United Methodist pastor from central Pennsylvania, Frank Schaefer, was defrocked for officiating at his son’s gay wedding in 2007 and — more to the point — refusing to say he would not do it again. Three of his four children are gay.
The church had every legal right to defrock Schaefer; it’s entirely their business and not the state’s. And when Schaefer refused to say he would uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, the church’s Board of Ordained Ministry no doubt felt they had no choice but to cut him loose.
But the church’s decision has only served to split further the United Methodists, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, which has struggled with its policy on gays. The church accepts gay and lesbian members, but rejects homosexual acts as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and bars clergy from performing same-sex unions.
At their last national meeting in 2012, delegates reaffirmed the church’s 40-year-old policy on gays, but hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected the doctrine, and Schaefer is not alone in facing discipline for presiding over same-sex unions. Last month, in a public challenge to church rules, a retired Methodist bishop officiated at a wedding for two men in Alabama.
Progress on the culture front almost always begins with changes of the heart and head, followed by changes in civil law and within cultural institutions. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, about as conservative a fellow as you will find, became a supporter of gay marriage when his own daughter Mary married another woman. We can’t help but think this change of heart by Dick Cheney, a hero of the right, has led other conservatives to say — if only, for now, to themselves — “Why not?”
We are tempted to call Schaefer a “hero” of the culture wars, a man who put his job and career on the line rather than compromise his principles. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Schaefer is pushing justice forward by refusing to obey an unjust law. But, to be honest, we really think he was just being a loving father, doing what any good parent might do, not unlike Cheney.
We’re also tempted to say how ironic it is that Schaefer is being hailed as a hero within his church, cheered on by millions of other United Methodists, and even offered a new job over the weekend by an independent-minded bishop. The bishop, Minerva G. Carcano, of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, has no authority to restore Schaefer’s ministerial credentials, according to the Associated Press, but has offered him a position with most of the same rights and responsibilities as an ordained minister.
But there is no irony here. Not really. The groundswell of support for Schaefer was to be expected. He was never an outsider within his church, only an outsider within one faction — a faction that we predict will grow smaller over time.
Maybe this is the truest indicator of the progress of gay rights in America: It takes less courage to do the right thing.