Rev. Frank Schaefer’s personal retelling of the events leading up to his trial and defrocking, are detailed in his new book, “Defrocked: How a Father’s Love Shook the United Methodist Church” (UMC). “I never got to tell my side of the story,” Schaefer says on why he wrote the memoir, which officially releases July 26 after first being featured at June’s Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina.
Schaefer is the latest in a line of UMC pastors disciplined for performing same-sex weddings or being open about their own same-sex relationships. In this sense, Schaefer’s experience is not unique. Jimmy Creech was defrocked in 1998 for performing a same-sex ceremony, and Beth Stroud was defrocked in 2005 for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
Schaefer makes the argument that his case has shifted the conversation again. Since the controversy began, breaking church law for his son is the focus of the conversation at Schaefer’s public appearances.
“Frank chose to honor his call as a child of God and honor his call as a father,” says Rev. Dawn M. Hand from Foundry UMC, Washington D.C., explaining why this case pushed the LGBT question with the church. “Our first call is to love God. Then it is to love and serve our family. Then it is to love and serve his area of calling.” Immediately after Schaefer’s December 2013 trial, he made appearances on national network news, including Anderson Cooper’s show, and has preached most Sundays at churches across the country. During these appearances, Schaefer has heard from people who support LGBT equality, those who do not, and those who are somewhere in between. “When I get very critical questions,” Schaefer says, “I love engaging with those folks and I share my story, my experience.”
A similar case, with far less national media attention, involved retired Rev. Thomas Ogletree, who was also brought under church charges for performing a same-sex union for his son. Ogletree’s case was resolved by the New York UMC conference in March 2014.
Defrocked tells the story of when Schaefer discovered his son was gay. The revelation began with an anonymous phone call alerting Schaefer that his son was gay and suicidal. The notification was followed by tearful conversations with Schaefer’s wife and son. Their conversations resulted in public silence both out of fear for the repercussions in the church and out of concern for their son’s privacy. In 2013, when charges were filed because Schaefer performed the same-sex wedding for his son, Schaefer’s world turned upside down. At trial, Schaefer decided to publicly support his son, the LGBT community, and the movement for equality. “If there is one regret I have, it’s that I didn’t speak out soon enough,” Schaefer says. “I felt totally free,” He recalls while talking about his evolution since the trial, “I felt at peace with God, with the world and with myself.” Schaefer continued, “Living with homophobia in church puts you in a state of fear, and in that moment all of it went away.”
During his testimony before the church, “I felt the freedom too,” says his wife Bridgette Schaefer. Privately, she had urged her husband to become bolder in his public stance. “Being able to speak openly and publicly about my theology,” Frank explains, “and being able to engage in dialogue openly has not only emboldened my witness, but it has actually further changed and widened my theology, especially with regard to God language.”
After traveling for months around the country speaking about his trial experience and his new-found calling to minister to the LGBT community, Schaefer has continued to shift his theology. “The transgender and queer community has helped me gain a new understanding of the importance of using neutral and genderless pronouns for God, as the spectrum of sexual identity and orientation includes people who identify with either or both genders,” he says.
The conversation will move forward, Rev. Hand points out. “We have to learn how to get along with each other, and how to disagree with each other,” she says. “Even as the conversation continues, we all have to practice grace and civility with each other.”
The debate continues with a recent official complaint filed against the 36 UMC pastors who blessed a same-sex wedding at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, in November 2013. The ceremony was performed partly in solidarity with Frank Schaefer, as well as to protest the official church position.
Despite the trial, Schaefer says he has no regrets. “One thing I know for sure is that I will never be silent again…If you proclaim boldly what you feel is a justice issue and what is right, God will not let you down.”
Originally published on July 11, 2014 at the United Methodist Reporter