United Methodist Church officials defrocked Thursday the pastor who was convicted in a church trial last month for performing the marriage ceremony of his gay son in Hull six years ago.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor of a church in Lebanon, Pa., was stripped of his credentials after meeting with the Board of Ordained Ministry for the church's Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
In its decision last month, the jury convicted Schaefer of violating church rules prohibiting gay marriage and suspended him for 30 days, saying he should take that time to decide whether, in the future, he could uphold the church's rules in their entirety.
Schaefer decided he could not, because he feels church laws are contradictory — on the one hand promising inclusivity and equal ministry to all and on the other discriminating against gay people — and because he felt called by God to advocate for gay people.
But he said that, up until the moment of the board's decision Thursday, he had hoped he could avoid the ultimate punishment.
"I was hoping it wouldn't come to that," he said in a phone interview on the way to a press conference. "All kinds of things I told myself: It was an act of love for my son; they're not going to do this. But they did."
Schaefer said many of the board members, including the chairwoman, were in tears at the meeting, saying they felt they had to enforce church law.
"I don't blame anybody personally," he said. "It's the exclusionary policies that force everybody to do these crazy things. I am just the latest victim."
He said he plans to appeal the decision.
The development could plunge the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, deeper into turmoil over its rules regarding homosexuality. The church has been arguing about the issue for 40 years, and the divide appears to be widening. The church is losing members in the United States, particularly in more liberal parts of the country, but growing rapidly in Africa, where homosexuality is widely opposed.
United Methodist clergy in New England and elsewhere who support gay marriage are openly defying the prohibitions.
Traditionalists who, citing the Bible, believe that homosexual sex is sinful have pushed the church to enforce its Book of Discipline, which holds that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with church teaching" and that "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" may not serve as clergy.
The standoff has led to a spate of trials, which have angered supporters of gay marriage and heightened the rhetoric, causing many on both sides to question whether the denomination can remain intact.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht — vice president of Good News, a Methodist ministry that promotes orthodox viewpoints, who advised the church prosecutor in the Schaefer trial — said he was not surprised by the board's action Thursday.
"It was the right decision, and really Rev. Schaefer left them no choice," he said. "In order to implement the verdict the trial court reached, the Board of Ordained Ministry had to take away his credentials."
Schaefer's appeal will be heard by a regional appeals panel, whose decision will automatically be reviewed by the church's highest court, the Judicial Council, which next meets in April, Lambrecht said.
Robert C. Neville — professor of philosophy, religion, and theology at Boston University and former dean of its School of Theology and Marsh Chapel — said: "I think until the appeal process is finished, it's not clear what anybody can do."
The church's legislative body, the General Conference, will not meet again until 2016.
Four other clergy are facing charges for violating the church's rules on homosexuality. This month, the wedding of two lesbian pastors in Seattle was officiated by a high-ranking local church official. Lambrecht said he expects charges to be filed in that case, as well.
While he pursues his appeal, Schaefer said he hopes to sustain himself with speaking and preaching; he said he has received many invitations since his trial, which was widely covered in the news media.
He said he will spend Christmas with family at his son's house in Hull and hopes to attend his son's church, St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
"I think it's fantastic," said the Rev. Will Green, pastor at St. Nicholas. "Frank Schaefer is my hero, and for so many of us, he is the embodiment of grace and Christian love. It speaks so much to his spirit . . . that he's going to go anywhere near a Methodist church on Christmas Eve, after what he's gone through."