Rev. Dr. Christopher L. Fisher is an Elder in the Eastern PA Conference, Director and Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary, and an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary.
The Judicial Council ruled that the trial court’s penalty in the case of Rev. Frank Schaefer was illegal, and upheld the Appeal Court’s Decision to reinstate the defrocked minister. Before I comment on that further, here is the official press release I issued as Counsel for the Church in response to the Decision. I was joined in this statement by Mr. Robert Shoemaker, assistant Church Counsel and Legal Advisor to the Eastern PA Conference:
We would like to thank the Judicial Council for their hard work in clarifying the legality of the penalty. Future juries will now hopefully have clearer directions on such matters.
While the outcome was not entirely unexpected, we are disappointed with the Decision. We don’t agree with the court’s analysis, but it’s a case that could have gone either way. The ruling hinges on obscure legal technicalities, and put aside a jury’s attempt at just resolution and reconciliation. We know that the jury was trying to give the Respondent a chance to avoid being removed from clergy orders if he would recommit to uphold the Discipline. We do not think such a request was unlawful or unreasonable. Every pastor in The United Methodist Church is expected to make the same commitment as the basic condition of doing ministry. The effect of the Decision is that future juries will be reluctant to offer grace or give such a final opportunity for reconciliation. Unless General Conference changes the rules for penalties, future juries will have no discretion to apply more than one penalty even in complex cases, nor to give conditions that might lead to reinstatement. They may be pushed to harsher penalties to avoid ambiguity or risk running afoul of this Decision. We think this is sad, because the express disciplinary goal of the judicial process is just resolution and reconciliation.
Finally, although the Decision is strictly about the legality of the penalty, unfortunately it can easily be perceived as meaning that any pastor can declare he or she won’t uphold the Discipline anymore, and it doesn’t matter. This is not encouraging at a time when there are already deep divisions threatening the unity of the Church, since the Discipline is the covenant that binds the Church together. Hopefully, the General Conference will remove this misperception.
Since the Decision is really only about the penalty, let’s look at the two legal technicalities that the Council used in its reasoning. As Church Counsel, I argued that the current Discipline’s penalty directions, which include provisions for a delay in putting a penalty into effect, made it legal to suspend a pastor and revoke his credentials if he would not agree to uphold the Discipline at the end of the suspension. I argued this was one seamless penalty with a legal delay, because it was a paid suspension for discernment. I also argued that requiring a promise to uphold the Discipline is legal because it is required of every pastor as the basic condition of doing ministry in the United Methodist Church.
The Judicial Council said that the current Discipline and past Judicial Council decisions only allow single discrete penalties, so that the trial court’s penalty could only legally include either a suspension or a surrender of orders, but not both. The Decision disregarded the “paid delay” argument. It also said that the penalty could not require a statement or judgment about the pastor’s future intentions. It could only be based on present or past acts. The Council’s interpretation of these technical errors allowed it to uphold the lower appeal court decision. When there are errors of church law, the Discipline gives appeal courts the right to modify a penalty. Thus the modified penalty of the lower appeal court was upheld, which reinstated the guilty minister with a single penalty of 30 days unpaid suspension, time already served.
The interpretation of the rulings that the Council used in this decision really could’ve gone either way. Another set of jurists might easily have voted to uphold the original penalty. For instance, they might have agreed the paid suspension was a legal delay, and might have concluded it is legitimate to ask for a commitment about future intent, since this is part of the ordination vows of every United Methodist elder.
Because the ruling allows the reinstatement of a pastor who has declared he won’t uphold the Discipline, it may feel like an injustice has been foisted upon the Church. It is worth remembering that the Respondent was found guilty of violating the Discipline, and that verdict was not challenged or overturned. The penalty was simply modified based on technicalities. If the respondent violates concrete provisions of the Discipline again, he may be subject to another complaint and possible trial.
However, the more important question is, “what does the Decision mean for the larger Church?” It does not change the church’s position on any LGBT issues, nor does it eliminate any chargeable offenses. The General Conference is the only body that has the ability to make such larger changes to UM polity. It also has the right to change the very penalty provisions which the Decision now restrains.
Barring that, the Decision really is strictly about those penalty provisions, and it sets precedent for how penalties may be constructed in future trials. Future courts will not be allowed to give complex penalties that combine more than one type of penalty, nor will they be likely to offer any type of opportunity for restitution or reconciliation which might involve questions of future intent. As I stated in the press release, this may lead to harsher penalties, not more gracious penalties. Juries will be reluctant to give any opportunity for a change of heart or mind. Nor will they be likely to allow the guilty person to have any part in determining their own penalty.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In this case, the jury tried to give a conditional penalty to someone who had pleaded “not guilty” even though he knew he had violated the Discipline; he also declared at the trial that he would no longer uphold the Discipline. After finding him guilty, should the jury have trusted him to have a role in crafting his own penalty? Based on this Judicial Council Decision, future juries will not have the problem of answering that question. And maybe that really is okay.