A Methodist Inquisition

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon Pa., speaks to the media after the sentencing phase of the trial at Camp Innabah, a Unite
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon Pa., speaks to the media after the sentencing phase of the trial at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist retreat, in Spring City Pa. Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013. A jury of his pastoral peers convicted Schaefer on Monday of breaking his vows by officiating his gay sons' Massachusetts wedding in 2007. Schaefer was given a 30 day suspension by the church.(AP Photo/Chris Knight)

"Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit." Mark 13:11

One more United Methodist minister, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, was convicted of performing a marriage of a loving same-gender couple -- his son and his son's beloved. The next day, in the penalty hearings, the church jury heard testimony -- some asking for a church to be known by its love rather than its rules -- others demanding that Rev. Schaefer be "openly rebuked" so as to deter other "weaker brethren." The result -- thirty days suspension after which Rev. Schaefer must vow to follow the rule book or turn in his ministerial credentials.

In response, Rev. Schaefer said, "I can no longer be a silent supporter. I must continue to be in ministry with all people and speak for LGBTQ people. Members of the jury, before you decide my penalty, you need to know I wear this rainbow stole as a visible sign that this is who I am called to be."

It is time to call this what it is -- a Methodist Inquisition. The Rev. Frank Shaefer is just the latest in a string of trials that have ruined careers and damaged souls. Many of the faithful have fled to other denominations, and too many now check the box next to "NONE" when religious affiliation is asked on questionnaires.

More trials are on their way.

Days ago, bishops of the United Methodist Church called for the prosecution of one of their own -- Bishop Melvin Talbert -- for presiding over the wedding of two men, Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw.

Bishop Talbert is a Methodist hero and true to the legacy of Methodism as a movement that, in its earliest days, opposed slavery, ministered to widows and orphans, preached to the poor and challenged the rich. At the 2012 United Methodists General Conference, where delegates from around the world refused to eliminate the language that harms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, Bishop Talbert called for "Biblical obedience" to the Gospel of love rather than continue the victimization of church members who are LGBTQ.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is the church of my youth. Today, I am the head of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), in part, because I was not welcome in the denomination where I learned about the love of God and neighbor. I was not welcome because I wanted to make my life with a woman -- Paula, my wife of 36 years!

You can imagine how deeply I was moved when I heard Bishop Talbert say, "...God has already settled this matter: all human beings are created in the image of God. There are no exceptions, no exclusions. We belong to the family of God. At the same time, I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience."

Because of my work in MCC, I have known Bishop Talbert since the early 1980's. At that time, we were both present at meetings of the National Council of Churches, where MCC was applying for membership. Even then, he was on the side of inclusion and was warm and welcoming to MCC, while the majority of Christians in the Council turned their backs on MCC Christians and refused us membership.

Perhaps he felt as I did back then, that the churches just had to grow a bit more before they understood that God has gifted humanity with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. Tragically, two generations later, MCC is still not a member of the National Council of Churches, and the United Methodist Church is on the verge of cannibalizing itself through trials and inquisitions of medieval proportions.

The UMC is the last major Protestant group to maintain a full prohibition against the leadership and support of lesbian and gay people. The UMC rule book, The Book of Discipline, bans pro-LGBT groups, bans ordinations and bans marriages -- all in the name of love.

One of the challenges is that the United Methodist Church is a global church. The Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal denominations which dropped their prohibitions are U.S.-based. United Methodist membership is growing in the more conservative southern regions of the United States and in Africa. This lowers the percentage of LGBTQ supporters at the policy-setting General Conference.

It is important to note that even in regions like Africa and the Deep South of the United States, support is growing there as well -- but not quickly enough to change United Methodist policies in the near future. It is not only the dignity and lives of LGBTQ people at stake -- it is the character of the entire denomination. At the last General Conference, a test case vote was taken on whether anything could separate a person from the love of God -- a direct quote from Romans 8 -- and it barely passed. This generosity and grace of God is at the core of Methodist theology -- and Christianity itself.

Methodism's founders, Charles and John Wesley, risked their lives and reputations to include poor people, who were thought to be ineligible for salvation by England's legalistic Puritans and class-conscious Anglicans. Abandoned by most church people, poor and destitute people were welcomed by Methodists. They were fed, housed, loved and offered grace by a Methodist movement that was tired of hearing that God was a wrathful bully or a king with a crown. Hymn after hymn was written of the amazing grace of a good God who saves lives and opens hearts to a new hearing of the gospel.

Ironically, denominations with Puritan and Anglican traditions dropped their prohibitions against LGBTQ people in recent years. Today, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal traditions, along with the United Church of Christ and Unitarian-Universalists, are now open to the leadership and families of LGBTQ people.

The irony continues as the majority of Methodists are stuck in arcane arguments which defame God's people. Others Methodists have worked for inclusion for their entire lives and are discouraged and exhausted. Still others are standing firm in the faith and forcing the hand of the denomination.

The trials are beginning to surge:
  • More than thirty colleague clergy celebrated a same-gender wedding, days before Schaefer's trial, to make the point that the church will not be able to handle all of the trials coming.
  • Dr. Tom Ogletree, retired professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School, is also facing charges for officiating at the marriage of his own son.

As the global leader of MCC, which was born in a crucible of oppression as was early Methodism, I am proud to offer prayer and solidarity with those Methodists who are the wave of the future.

Across the country, thousands are joining a movement to obey the higher rules in the Bible and the Book of Discipline -- and to disobey unjust church laws. They are using their own sanctuaries to hold same-gender weddings, and pastors are stepping up to perform weddings for congregants and announcing it in newspapers, on Facebook and other media. Hundreds of clergy and lay people signed a statement that they would offer the same pastoral care to loving couples regardless of gender.

What are they doing? They are living into the future. It is not our future -- it is God's future of love for every child of God. They are living into the future where The United Methodist Church lives up to its own slogan, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog post erroneously stated that Bishop Melvin Talbert presided over the wedding of Rev. Kevin Higgs and Bobby Prince. Bishop Talbert actually presided over the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw. Rev. Higgs, who belongs to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, provided pastoral care and support to Bobby and Joe, and local assistance to Bishop Talbert when he was in Alabama. This post has been updated accordingly.