Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Philadelphia Episcopal Area, which includes the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference where the Rev. Frank Schaefer is a clergy member, responded to questions from The United Methodist Reporter about Schaefer’s trial.
Rev. Schaefer was convicted earlier this week of performing a same-sex wedding (for his son Tim) and disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church. He is currently on suspension and has 30 days to determine if he will be able to comply with the United Methodist Book of Discipline in its entirety (including the proscriptions against clergy participation in same-sex unions) or else surrender his ministerial credentials, removing Schaefer from pastoral ministry. Schaefer said during the trial that he would not be able to comply with the Book of Discipline.
As the supervising bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, Bishop Johnson was responsible for receiving the complaint against Schaefer and attempting to find a resolution prior to conducting a trial. Once all other avenues were exhausted, Johnson then had the responsibility for making provisions for the trial, including finding a presiding bishop and appointing the counsel to represent the church.
Bishop Johnson said that there had been much prayer and discernment in putting together the church trial, but acknowledged that the entire process was painful for all involved, especially Rev. Schaefer and his family.
UMR asked Johnson about the criteria used in selecting Bishop Alfred Gwinn to be the presiding bishop at the trial. She stated that Bishop Gwinn was one of several bishops that had been trained to preside at church trials, and that of those bishops his schedule made him most available to serve. “Bishop Gwinn was excellent and grace filled,” Johnson said.
When asked about the criteria for selecting the Counsel for the Church, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, Johnson said that the decision was one of “prayerful discernment.”
Johnson said that the full cost of the trial had not yet been tabulated, but that she was estimating the total cost at somewhere around $50,000.
UMR asked Bishop Johnson if she had any plans to meet with Schaefer during the 30 day discernment period. Johnson said that she is open to meeting with Schaefer should he desire to do so.
One of the themes of the trial were the divisions present at the Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, where Schaefer has served as the pastor for the past 11 years. When asked if Schaefer would be reappointed to the Lebanon, Pa. church should he decide to comply with the ruling of the court, Johnson stated that Schaefer’s future appointment is a matter of cabinet business which is currently not under consideration at this time. However, she also stated that Rev. Schaefer “…has been an effective pastor.”
“Church trials on this sensitive topic of same gender marriages are extremely difficult for the church,” Johnson said. “I believe that trial courts cannot get close to solving the challenge and in some ways makes the divisions and pain worse. I believe that trials of this nature should be avoided at all costs and holy conferencing and just resolution should be the order of the day. I pray for the day when we can agree to disagree on this and other matters around sexual orientation and that in that new-found peace people can work together for the building of the kingdom of God and making disciples.”