(RNS) A deep divide within the United Methodist Church over how to minister to gays and lesbians has led a Washington, D.C. pastor to suggest the denomination should not wait until its 2016 General Conference to change its policies.
Bishops could call a special General Conference to address the policies that are splitting the church, said the Rev. Dean Snyder, senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, a large and prestigious church near Dupont Circle, often visited by sitting presidents.
“Some of us believe this issue is critical enough to do that,” Snyder said in a telephone interview. “There’s more and more pressure from one side to enforce the rules and more and more pressure from the other side that thinks the rules are unjust and unloving.”
On Sunday (Dec. 22), Snyder’s church welcomed Frank Schaefer, a former Lebanon, Pa., United Methodist minister, to his Washington congregation. Schaefer was found guilty last month of violating church law for performing a 2007 same-sex wedding of his son to another man. When he said he would refuse to quit performing additional same-sex weddings, church officials in Pennsylvania stripped him of his clergy credentials.
At least four clergy trials are possible in the near future for other Methodist pastors who have officiated at same-sex marriages.
Snyder, who has performed as many as a dozen same-sex weddings, but has not been prosecuted by the church, does not oppose using trials to enforce the church’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline.
“But these trials are about enforcing obedience to just some of the rules of the church,” he said. “That draconian effort to force obedience to selected rules leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Trials are counterproductive and we have to find other ways to negotiate our differences.”
The denomination, the nation’s second largest Protestant group, accepts gay and lesbian members, but its Book of Discipline calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” and bars clergy from performing same-sex unions.
Since he was defrocked, Schaefer has received an outpouring of support. Foundry invited him to join as a member and he gave the sermon there on Sunday.
In another sign of the growing rift, Bishop Minerva G. Carcano, based in Southern California, invited Schaefer to join the church’s California-Pacific Conference.
“We should stand with him and others who show such courage and faithfulness,” she said in a statement.
Schaefer told worshippers at Foundry that he and his family were considering Carcano’s invitation. Carcano said Schaefer’s former bishop, Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania, supported her invitation.
Carcano said that only a board of ordained ministry could restore Schaefer’s clergy credentials. But, she said she can “welcome others to love and serve Christ Jesus among us.”
On Friday (Dec. 20), Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Area released a tearful video statement in which he called on the church to stop using church trials to decide questions of faith, and told gays and lesbians many people in the church support them.
“You are children of God, of sacred worth,” Schol said. “There are United Methodist churches that open their doors wide to you, and are ready to be in ministry with you and treat you just like every other member of their church.”
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