Just days after the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, voted to embrace gay marriage, the United Methodist Church has decided to reinstate a pastor who was defrocked after presiding over his son's same-sex nuptials.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, 52, successfully appealed the denomination's December decision to remove his pastoral rights after he conducted the 2007 ceremony in violation of church law.
The United Methodist Church's Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals reinstated the preacher Tuesday and ordered that Schaefer be compensated for all lost wages since his defrocking, according to United Methodist News Service.
The nine-person panel comprised of church members and faith leaders unanimously found that Schaefer's punishment was inappropriate under denominational regulations.
United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer does a dance step after a reporter's question as the Rev. Lorelei Toombs, left, looks on during a news conference Tuesday, June 24, 2014, at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The pastor, who will soon be heading to work in California in a new position ministering to college students, is exuberant over the decision, predicting that it could spell a coming changes in Methodists' official policies on gays.
"Today there was a very clear and strong signal from the church, and that message is, 'Change is on the way,'" Schaefer told the New York Times. "One day we will celebrate the fact that we have moved beyond this horrible chapter in our church’s life."
Many people, though, aren't happy with the church's decision to overturn the defrocking, arguing that it could spawn a more intense fight over same-sex marriage, as both sides will likely double down.
It's important to note that the panel left Schaefer's 30-day suspension last fall on the books, as the appeals court agreed that he did violate United Methodist Church law, which bans gay unions.
But because, in part, the defrocking punishment was based on his refusal to pledge never to again to preside over same-sex marriages — future behavior that hadn't yet unfolded — it was overturned.
There was also the appeals court's finding that it was improper to mix punishments by imposing both a 30-day suspension and a defrocking.
So, the big question is: What happens next?
In this June 14, 2014 photo, Brigitte Schaefer, left, her son Tim Schaefer, center, and Tim's partner, John Duncan, applaud as Frank Schaefer receives an Open Door Award for his public advocacy in Massachusetts, at Old South Church, in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
Regardless of the outcome, performing gay unions is still not allowed under Methodist rules. And as the New York Times noted, it's quite possible that church leaders could appeal the case to a higher body called the Judicial Council, though it's unclear if they will.
Considering that other denominations like Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have taken major steps in embracing gay unions, all eyes will be on other sects, including the United Methodist Church, to see if they will follow suit.
The latest issue aside, the debate among Methodists has been growing for quite some time. TheBlaze began reporting in 2011 about preachers in the denomination taking issue with the official stance against gay unions.
At the time, we noted that hundreds of Methodist pastors and laypeople had signed the “A Covenant of Conscience” pledge — part of the “We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality” movement — claiming that they will would support same-sex marriage. You can see a list of clergy signatories here.
The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, which outlines church law, though, is explicit in noting that marriage is confined to one man and one woman.
Official church rules on matrimony read, "We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman."
Pastors, too, are under strict guidelines.
AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File
"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world," the rules read. "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
While Methodists voted not to embrace gay marriage at their 2012 General Conference, the subject will surely be on the docket when they meet again in 2016. What they will decide, though, remains to be seen.
(H/T: New York Times)