Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Except for jury selection and during the testimony of a member of the board of Good News who formerly served on the Judicial Council (when I left for a time of personal prayer), I was present for the entire trial of Pastor Frank Schaefer.  I am trying to analyze what happened but, at the moment, all I can find inside is this random collection of mostly disappointed impressions. So I suppose I am sharing these thoughts and feelings more as a form of therapy for myself than as anything that will be very helpful to others.

A disappointment --actually, I admit, a resentment-- is that the prosecutor was repeatedly referred to by the bishop who served as judge and others as "The Church." I understand that his official title is "counsel for the church," and that he was appointed by the resident bishop to "represent the interests of the church." (Para 2701.2.b) But he was referred to  repeatedly as "The Church" as though he were the only one in the room who was church.

The whole trial was about who would be treated as fully included in the church. Then during the trial there is only one person who is actually called "The Church," and his job was to argue that someone who had ministered to his gay son and who refused to say he would not minister to other gay and lesbian folk in the future be removed from the church.

All of us in the room were, of course, the church. But the prosecutor was the only one who was named out loud as "The Church." I understand this this imitates civil courts and is just a technicality, but  I wonder if you can understand why this felt uncomfortable and I struggled with feelings of resentment?

Another disappointment concerns the testimony of Professor Thomas Frank who wrote the text book on United Methodist polity. His testimony was clear and honest and true. "We are a big tent," he said. "What results is a book that is itself quite diverse in its points of view."

He argued that the Book of Discipline is not a set of laws that are consistent and coherent but instead laws that sometimes conflict and are not consistent. He suggested that we make a mistake if we pick a verse out of the Book of Discipline and treat it as absolute. We should honor the complexity of the book and not be Disciplinary fundamentalists (my word, not his).

The disappointing part was that you got the sense that his teaching, which made so much sense, was floating right over the heads of some of those in the room and on the jury. The prosecution's argument was that there is a law, Frank broke it and will not promise not to break it again, so the consequence should be self-evident.

The same thing happened with Janet Wolf's testimony concerning the difference between retributive and restorative justice. "In restorative justice we listen to all of the stories, not just a law that has been broken," she said. In answer to a question from the prosecutor, she added: "Repentance is the repentance of all folk who have contributed to the harm in the community."

Professor Wolf showed how the Book of Discipline supports and advocates restorative justice rather than retributive justice over and over again. Obviously what she said flew right over the heads of the majority of the jury.

In short, I am feeling as if the trial was a victory for simplistic thinking. Wesley, if you read him, was a complex and profound thinker. Methodism has not been a movement based on simplistic thinking. The verdict in this trial was based on simplistic thinking.

Let me paraphrase the simplistic argument that won the day:There is a law on the books. We will not consider its context or other conflicting laws. The only question is whether Frank Schaefer broke this particular law and whether he will or will not promise not to do what he did again. If he will not promise not to break this one law again, he is the guilty one and he must be subjected to the maximum consequences.

I like clarity. I do not like pseudo-clarity. I like simplicity. I do not like simplistic thinking.

According to the lingo of the trial, "The Church" won. Really, it is clear to me that the church lost this trial ... but only for a moment. 

Pastor Schaefer and Steve Heiss who faces a trial in Upper New York serve Communion following sentencing


  1. Thank you for your insight into the 'trial' of Rev. Schaefer. I have been reading some of the news reports, but it is good to hear from someone who was actually there. And more than that, someone who really thinks about the heart of Methodism and prays for a renewal of the church in the true spirit of John Wesley. May you continue to be blessed in your ministry both to the powerful and to the margins. (Rev. Dr. Candace R. Shultis - an alumni of the United Methodist Church)

  2. The thing is Dean, I could have written the words you wrote above almost word for word (change a name here or there) at Rosemary Denman's trial (1987) after I sat outside on a bench all afternoon with Virginia Ramey Mollencott. At least this time they let some of the experts testify. My fear is that there won't be a church to win or lose by the time people have the "ears to hear." At least not a United Methodist Church.

  3. Simplistic it is: One rule break invokes the church's equivalent of the Death Penalty for its clergy. No chance for redemption; only an "opportunity" to renounce what you believe in, and to, in effect renounce your children. I've struggled with how the church should deal with homosexuality, but eventually it came down to one word: love. Jesus loves us - straight, gay, confused, or whatever. It's that clear to me. If we can't honestly minister to all, then how can we truly share Jesus' love. It's not a matter of always agreeing. I don't claim to understand everything about the issue, but I do know that God created us in God's image, and that means all. All means all.

  4. "The Church" seems determined to kill the UMC through the Death by a Thousand Cuts. Sadly, it may succeed.