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Minister is reinstated after officiating at gay marriage

The Rev. Frank Schaefer received an Open Door Award at Old South Church this month in Boston, where Representative Byron Rushing and Hillary Goodridge expressed approval.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A United Methodist pastor who was found guilty of breaking church law by officiating at the same-sex wedding ceremony of his son at a Hull restaurant in 2007 was reinstated Tuesday after a church appeals committee overturned a 2013 decision defrocking the pastor.

A nine-member United Methodist Church appeals panel issued an 8-to-1 decision in favor of restoring clerical credentials for the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who ministered at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., from 2002 to Nov. 19, when he was convicted at a church trial.

The appeals panel concluded that the church’s trial court erred in Schaefer’s punishment and devised sanctions not permitted under church law.


“I’m just elated,” Schaefer, 52, said in a phone interview. “It was a great moment of relief and just joy.”

After the trial in November, the church suspended Schaefer for 30 days for presiding at the April 28, 2007, wedding of his son, Tim, who is gay.

He was defrocked a month later after he refused to promise to uphold the Methodist law book “in its entirety,” including the church’s ban on clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Schaefer appealed, contending that the church could not sanction him for what he might or might not do in the future.

The appeals panel met last week in Maryland to hear the case. It upheld the 30-day suspension and said Schaefer should get back pay dating to when the suspension ended in December. The order said the suspension was deemed served.

The Rev. Scott Campbell, pastor at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, served as Schaefer’s counsel during the proceedings.

“He violated the rule, and he was suspended for that,” said Campbell. “We were dismayed that the law is what it is, but the appeals court honored their responsibility to observe the law.”


Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, who leads the church’s conference in Eastern Pennsylvania, said in a statement that she intends to abide by the decision and restore Schaefer’s clerical credentials.

Her office said it is up to the Rev. Christopher Fisher, who prosecuted the case, to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the United Methodist Church’s highest court.

Fisher did not respond to messages or an e-mail from the Globe seeking comment. He told the Associated Press that he has not made a decision about an appeal.

‘‘I'm still in prayerful consideration about that,’’ said Fisher, who called the decision ‘‘not entirely unexpected.’’

The United Methodist Church, which is the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, has been arguing about its rules regarding homosexuality for 42 years, in a division that seems to be widening.

Some United Methodist clergy in New England and elsewhere who support gay marriage are openly defying the prohibitions by performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.

On the other side are traditionalists who, citing the Bible, believe that homosexual sex is sinful and have pushed the church to enforce its law book, which holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with church teaching and that self-avowed, practicing homosexuals may not serve as clergy.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht — vice president and general manager of Good News, a Methodist ministry based in Texas that promotes orthodox views — was disappointed by the decision.

“It sends a confusing message about what the church believes and teaches about marriage,” Lambrecht said. “This decision doesn’t represent the majority view in the United Methodist Church. The majority view in the United Methodist Church is that all people are loved by God and of sacred worth and the practice of sexual relationships is reserved for those within monogamous, heterosexual marriages.”


Schaefer’s son Tim, whose same-sex wedding was at the center of the case against his father, was shocked by the lopsided support the appeals panel showed for his father’s position.

“I think it really underscores the division in the church,” he said.

Frank Schaefer said his next step will probably be to move to California, where he has been invited to serve the Methodist church in a liberal area of the country where he might avoid sanctions for defying church doctrine on homosexuality.

“I think we saw the United Methodist Church at its worst at my trial and defrocking,” Schaefer said. “It has really shaken the church to its core.”

The ruling, however, he said is a “very hopeful decision.”

“It really is a sign for the change that we see happening within the United Methodist Church,” Schaefer said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at