- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 19, 2013

SPRING CITY, Pa. (AP) — A day after convicting one of their own of breaking church law, a jury of United Methodist clergy members returned Tuesday to determine the punishment for a minister who officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son.

A jury of his pastoral peers convicted the Rev. Frank Schaefer on Monday of breaking his vows by officiating at the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts after a church trial that has rekindled debate over the denomination’s policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The jury reconvened Tuesday morning for the penalty phase, hearing testimony from former members of Mr. Schaefer’s congregation who said his conduct split the congregation, and from experts who said the punishment should serve as a deterrent to other like-minded clergy.

Mr. Schaefer could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to a suspension to losing his minister’s credentials.

Christina Watson said her family left Mr. Schaefer’s church because they no longer wanted to be “subjected to the preaching and teaching” of Mr. Schaefer.

“To me, it wasn’t a good Christian example for ministers to say it’s OK to break the rules of your church,” she testified.

Mr. Schaefer’s superior, the Rev. James Todd, testified that the church, Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, Pa., had suffered a significant drop in attendance and giving in the months since the congregation learned that Mr. Schaefer had officiated his son’s wedding, but he said the reasons were many.

Some, he said, left because they were angered that Mr. Schaefer had broken his vows. Others left because they were upset over the way Mr. Schaefer had been treated. And still others left amid disputes over Mr. Schaefer’s ministry, his administrative skills and his falling-out with the longtime choir director — the mother of the man who eventually filed a complaint against Mr. Schaefer over his son’s wedding.

Under questioning from Mr. Schaefer’s counsel, Mr. Todd acknowledged that Mr. Schaefer had informed the church in writing in 2006 that he planned to officiate at his son’s wedding, but Mr. Todd said he never saw the form and would have objected had he known.

The Rev. Paul Stallworth, who leads a United Methodist task force on sexuality and abortion, testified that church law requires jurors to “openly rebuke” Mr. Schaefer so that fellow clergy will think twice before breaking church law.

The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who is serving as the church’s prosecutor, urged the jury in his opening statement Tuesday to consider whether Mr. Schaefer will “repent of and renounce his disobedience to the (Methodist Book of) Discipline” and promise to obey the denomination’s book of law and doctrine in the future.

Mr. Schaefer’s counsel, the Rev. Robert Coombe, asked the jury to show “love and grace” to Mr. Schaefer.

“You can uphold the Discipline without being punitive and retributive,” he said.

Mr. Schaefer didn’t deny that he performed his son’s wedding, but he said he did it out of love, not a desire to flout church teaching on homosexuality.

The nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but it rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and forbids pastors from marrying same-sex partners.

Testifying in his defense Monday, Mr. Schaefer said he might have lost what he called his “ritual purity” by disobeying the Methodist Book of Discipline, but he said he felt he was obeying God’s command to minister to everyone.

The church’s sole witness was Jon Boger, a member of Mr. Schaefer’s congregation in Lebanon, who filed a complaint against the pastor less than a month before the six-year statute of limitations was set to expire.

He said he felt betrayed when he learned earlier this year that Mr. Schaefer, who had baptized his children and buried his grandparents, had presided over a gay wedding.

“When pastors take the law of the church in their own hand … it undermines their own credibility as a leader and also undermines the integrity of the church as a whole,” Mr. Boger said.

Mr. Boger acknowledged that his mother — the church’s choir director for more than 40 years — and Mr. Schaefer had a falling-out in the months leading up to the complaint, but he denied that is what motivated him to follow up on rumors that Mr. Schaefer had officiated at his son’s wedding.

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