This past Sunday, Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. hosted three defrocked United Methodist ministers for its morning services and afterwards in a panel discussion. Frank Schaefer, recently defrocked in a church trial for presiding over his son’s gay marriage preached at both morning services. Defrocked UMC ministers Jimmy Creech and Beth Stroud introduced Schaefer and joined him for the panel discussion . Foundry UMC is a “reconciling” congregation that disagrees with United Methodism’s official disapproval of homosexual behavior and in 2010 voted to allow gay marriages to be performed on the premises.
At three were repeat invitees. Frank Schaefer was invited to speak at Foundry last December, shortly following his defrocking. Creech was invited in 2011 to celebrate the one year anniversary of Foundry’s decision to allow same-sex marriages on the premises, while Stroud was invited in the summer of 2010 .
Creech, who was defrocked for in 1999 for performing gay marriages, complemented Foundry’s commitment to the LGBT cause. He quoted Catholic theologian Hans Kung’s observation that while there are many individual heroes of the faith, there are very few heroic communities. “You are among those few. Foundry United Methodist Church is one that has committed itself to justice, to equality… you have been faithful to the Gospel.”
Beth Stroud, who was defrocked for being in an open lesbian relationship, offered similar commendations. But she also voiced her fears that the United Methodist Church might become a church where “affluent white lesbians and gay men are welcomed and accepted, and our marriages are celebrated, and yet the homeless, transgendered youth of color continue to perish on the sidewalks of our cities.”
Following their remarks, Foundry associate pastor Rev. Al Hammer introduced Schaefer and presented him with a check for $31,000. Hammer explained that during his previous visit, the Foundry congregation had made an offering to help provide for Schaefer now that he lacked a source of income. Rev. Hammer noted that the hardest part for defrocked pastors was often losing their health insurance, and asked Schaefer if he had insurance. “I am proud and happy to report that I am now on Obamacare,” Schaefer responded, receiving the loudest applause of the entire service.
Schaefer’s sermon, entitled “Stepping Out on Faith,” drew from the story of Jesus teaching Peter to walk on water. Just as Jesus commanded Peter to step out into the storm, Schaefer preached that God is calling all Christians to take a step forward to embrace gay rights. “Jesus is challenging us all the time to show faith… Jesus is asking us, as a denomination, as pastors, as bishops, as churches, to step out onto the waters of faith and make a difference. This is the time. Change is coming.”
Schaefer pointed to his own actions as an example, saying that after officiating his son’s wedding, God provided for him when he lost his credentials. “God asked me to risk it all, and I did. And I lost it all.” But Schaefer pointed to the praise and support he received in return from the LGBT community, his new insurance under Obamacare, and receiving so many speaking requests that he is preaching every Sunday for the next six months. “God is always going to make sure that we are okay,” Schaefer said.
The service was followed by a panel discussion, during which the defrocked ministers shared their stories and their thoughts on the state of the United Methodist Church. Joining the panel was Dorothee Benz, leader of Methodists in New Directions (MIND), who spoke on the behalf of Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, the former dean of Yale Divinity School who in March will be facing a church trial for officiating his son’s gay marriage. Benz announced that they would be hosting a pre-trial rally on March 9 to protest the church trial of Rev. Dr. Ogletree. “If the UMC is hell-bent on criminalizing gay people and criminalizing ministry to us,” she declared, “then we must be equally determined to use this shameful moment and turn it into something that moves the cause of justice for LGBTQ people forward.”
Making a surprise appearance at the panel discussion was retired bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. “Let me just say that when saints are in town, I aim to show up,” he remarked to loud laughter and applause. “I consider the three of you saints and heroes… I have no authority to do so, but I bring you greetings from the entire Episcopal Church.” (In Bishop Robinson’s defense, celebrating clergy who defy authority was the purpose of the panel.)
Perhaps the most interesting comments came from Frank Schaefer, who spoke of how he was invited to a spontaneous conference in the California-Pacific Conference called by Bishop Minerva Carcaño to discuss the aftermath of his defrocking. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many pastors stood up and said, ‘…if these discriminatory laws are not changed, this language is not changed, we have to find a way to break away from the United Methodist Church…’ [A]nd they’re not even talking about the conference, we’re talking about the entire Western Jurisdiction.
“…My theory is with all that is happening, the pressure will be so great, something’s gotta give… Either it’s going to end up in a substantial change of our Book of Discipline, or there’ll be a splintering of our denomination, or something I can’t predict and no one can.”