Editor’s Notes: Moving from a meeting to a trial

LakeJ2Innabah_busFor most of the past week those of us who are United Methodist news junkies have been fixated on the rumblings from Lake Junaluska as the United Methodist Council of Bishops met. Throughout the week we waited for the news that it seemed like everyone wanted to know: Would the COB take action against Bishop Melvin Talbert or not? Certainly there was no shortage of opinions on what they should do, from the Good News call for accountability to Tom Frank’s plea that trials were ineffective and should be avoided. And then, early Friday morning while many were still asleep or getting ready for work, the bishops shared a statement “respectfully requesting” two of their own to make a formal complaint against Bishop Talbert (a complaint which will have to be filed in the Western Jurisdiction, an area that has openly supported Talbert’s actions). As the cries of support and betrayal quickly spread, the bishops quietly packed their bags and headed home to deal with the fallout.

So now we move from a meeting at one campground to a trial at another. Tomorrow morning press and observers from throughout the U.S. will be gathering in the early morning at Camp Innabah in Spring City, PA trying to get a seat to watch the trial of The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist minister charged with disobeying the UM Book of Discipline’s proscriptions against presiding at services which celebrate same-sex marriage or unions (Schaefer presided at the marriage service of his gay son).

This isn’t the first time that Camp Innabah has seen such an event. Nine years ago, almost to the day, the Rev. Irene “Beth” Stroud sat in the same room accused of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” leading to the removal of her ministerial credentials. For some unknown reason, Camp Innabah has become ground zero for the legal fight in the church regarding ministry by and with homosexual persons, something rather ironic for a place named after a Navajo word meaning “May the Great Spirit be With you Always.”

Don’t think that this is a minor event, for the eyes of the nation will be fixed on the events at Camp Innabah this week. The Schaefer trial received far ranging coverage in the secular media. This has all the makings of a good fight with all sorts of topics that play well in papers and on TV — sex, legal drama, religion, and family — and people who have little to no understanding of the ongoing debate in our church on the issue of sexuality will be watching closely.

What we know for sure about the coming trial is minimal. We know the location. We know that Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn will be the presiding judge. We know that Rev. Schaefer will be represented by the Rev. Robert G. Coombe, pastor of  Yardley (Pa.) United Methodist Church, and that the prosecutor will be the Rev. Christopher Fisher, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa. We know that there is an attempt to place strict rules on access to the trial, limiting the number of press who can report on the proceedings per the guidelines for attendance printed here (limits that were not in place at the Beth Stroud trial).

As is typical with these things, there are lots of stories flying around as well. Rev. Schaefer had said he intended to present a defense which draws on a team of experts who will suggest that his decision to perform the ceremony was in keeping with other provisions in the Book of Discipline, such as the call to minister to at-risk teens who have contemplated suicide due to confusion over their sexuality. However reports are beginning to leak out that Bishop Gwinn will limit the testimony at the trial to the very narrow question of whether Schaefer conducted the service or not, and that other questions about competing provisions in the Book of Discipline will not be considered. It will be interesting to see what actually happens.

What should be clear to all is that this is a no-win event for the United Methodist Church. While holding one another accountable in love is clearly part of our heritage in the Wesleyan tradition, a formal “trial” about theology, biblical interpretation, and the subsequent practice of ministry (issues at the core of the debate) comes across to un and de-churched people as somewhat judgmental, more in keeping with the tradition of the Spanish Inquisition than in representing the love of Christ to the world. If Schaefer is found guilty and removed from ministry, the decision will only solidify the belief held by many that the church is a place more concerned about rules than relationships. If Schaefer is acquitted, then those who want to protect the church and maintain traditional values will cry that this is another nail in the coffin of the UMC. No matter which way the jury decides, there will be hurt and pain and accusations thrown to and fro which only deepen the divisions we already face.

There really isn’t much we can do about this at this point. This IS our system of governance. That system is based as much in the assumptions of American democracy and enlightenment beliefs in our ability to prove right and wrong than in any belief regarding the Biblical witness of discernment and the call of God to bring forth justice. While Tom Frank believes that it is within the power of the bishops to eschew accountability by trial, he also taught me when I was at the Candler School of Theology that the Book of Discipline represents 200 years of life together as a church, and unfortunately for us that 200 years includes a belief that jurisprudence is an acceptable (and maybe even desirable) means of addressing conflict between brother and sister. A judicial process is part and parcel of our polity, and until we discern another way, it’s very likely that trials will continue to be with us.

And yet, as we face another trial, we have to ask ourselves if this is REALLY the way that Jesus intended for the world to know of his love? Are church trials reflective of our love, one for another, a love which Christ said would be a means of revealing his love to the world? Is not our accountability supposed to be done in love rather than in a court of law?

As the apostle Paul reminds us, love is hard work. It is to be at the center of all we do, the center of who we are, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said grace (love) is not cheap:

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end.
1 Corinthians 13:4-10 (CEB)

The United Methodist Church is still moving on to perfection. We still haven’t figured out how to practice love like Jesus practiced love. The perfect has not yet come for us. And so, like the church in Corinth, we continue to muddle through.

There are no easy answers. Yes, the covenant of community does require accountability to the rule of that community. Yes, God’s call in our lives should lead us to prophetic demonstrations when laws are immoral or unjust. Both sides of the debate have cogent reasons for their beliefs.

But as we muddle along, in the midst of our statements and our trials, may we never forget that love is the only thing that remains true in the end.

May the Great Spirit be with us all as we move toward another difficult week.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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20 Comments on "Editor’s Notes: Moving from a meeting to a trial"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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[…] Voorhees of The United Methodist Reporter has written a preview column about the upcoming trial of Frank Schaefer on charges that he violated the UMC’s Book of […]

marty gilbert

Not having family in my life, the people who choose to be a part of my life, are the most important to me. I have found a sense of Family among those i have chosen to share Faith and Service to the Community with. My bond with this family is strong but its best summed up with…. Religion is a choice, Sexuality is not, it is a divine gift from God and a law just like Gravity.


I think a trial is appropriate, both as it is prescribed by the BoD and given that those called to leadership are expected to abide by the teachings of Scripture, at least according to St. Paul (1Ti 1:7, 2Ti 3:8, 4:3)… not to mention what Jesus' words on the subject were. A trial may serve to bring to his attention how he has erred, and thereby call him to repentance.

John McCormack

Tom, your comment "what Jesus' words on the subject were" has me confused as Jesus never said anything about those whom we now call homosexuals. Am I misunderstanding you?

As a recent new Methodist I find the BOD to be a total joke. It makes absolutely no sense to me or to your average church goer. I'm coming from a non denominational church that stated it's sole source of authority was the Bible. So this whole concept of having another book elevated to the Bible's status is foreign to me. I guess I'm not really a Methodist (?) then even tho I've joined a Methodist church that is reconciling. I don't take the Bible literally anymore either so you can see how little value the BOD has for me… Read more »

I do not see it as unloving to discipline someone for willful disobedience. If you sign a contract you must abide by it. If the issue at hand were not gay marriage, would anyone have a real problem with the church putting someone on trial for not honoring their contract to abide by church rules?

Morgan Guyton

Thank you for using the word "contract" instead of "covenant." Exactly.

Abridged Version

If the pastor is defrocked and leaves to be a pastor elsewhere, I would be happy to join that church and support his actions.

Good commentary, Jay Voorhees. I know what you mean when you say the trial will be a "no-win" situation for the UMC. However, I think it will be very revealing. I hope that the Holy Spirit works within the hearts of all who participate in the trial. I also hope that dozens and dozens of more UMC pastors deliberately and prayerfully violate the BOD and officiate at same-sex weddings all over the country, so many that it will become impractical for the denomination to continue to violate God's law of love. Only then can we say that we have open… Read more »
Jim West

Thank you Jay.


Absolutely….this "trial" is not about "love" or how we live it, promote it, demo it, etc.It is about a pastor who willfully and knowingly disregarded an oath he gave and abused the authority he was given.Frankly, I am tired of hearing such terms as violence, hatred, etc being levelled at our common beliefs as expressed in our BOD and embodied in our general conference decisions….


Jay, is that the Magic Schoolbus on your illustration??


Haha! Love it Connie!

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