A Father. A Church. A Movement.
Like many other Christian denominations around the world, the United Methodist Church is at a crossroads. The debate over same-sex marriage has reached a point where it threatens to irreparably divide the Church.
An Act of Love tells the story of an unwitting advocate in the fight for equal rights within the Church, Rev. Frank Schaefer, who had his ministerial credentials revoked in December 2013 after officiating his son’s same-sex wedding.
Will Rev. Schaefer’s trial be the final breaking point for the Church? Or will his story be the final chapter in the long struggle for LGBTQ equality within the UMC?
At the beginning of his career, Schaefer had no intention of getting involved in the controversy over gay marriage in the Church. However, several years into Frank’s ministry at a small church in Pennsylvania, his eldest son, Tim, began to quietly struggle with his sexual orientation. Amidst fear of rejection from his Church and his family, Tim became withdrawn and teetered on the verge of suicide.
Once the Schaefers assured their son that they accepted and loved him regardless of his sexual orientation, a new fear arose – what would Frank’s congregation in Lebanon, Pennsylvania think? Tim never felt comfortable in Lebanon, so he moved to Boston for college in an effort to live in a more progressive area. It was in Boston where he met his future husband. After college, they were married in a private service in Massachusetts, where Frank officiated. The Schaefers knew that having Frank officiate Tim’s wedding was a risk to his career, but they figured since it was a private family affair that it wouldn’t ruffle any feathers.
Many ministers in the United Methodist Church have conducted same-sex marriages without penalty, even though it is against Church law. However, there have been times when ministers were brought to trial within the Church and defrocked for officiating same-sex marriages, such as in the case of Rev. Jimmy Creech in 1999. And in 2004, UMC minister Beth Stroud was put on trial and defrocked after coming out as a lesbian to her congregation in Philadelphia.
Nearly six years passed after Tim and Bobby’s wedding, and no one had brought up the marriage. Only weeks before the statute of limitations ran out, a member of Frank’s church brought an official complaint against him. In November 2013, Frank Schaefer’s Church trial was held over two days in a Church camp gymnasium. At the end of the trial, the Church gave Frank a choice: promise to never perform a same-sex wedding again, or turn in his credentials as a minister. For Frank, there was no more debating; he would not promise to stop performing same-sex marriages. He was subsequently defrocked.
But Frank was not done preaching. Immediately after his defrocking, he began a six month speaking tour, going to churches and rallies around the nation and appearing on several TV shows. While touring the country, Frank filed an appeal for his defrocking in hopes to be reinstated. But he feared that he would lose the appeals process like other ministers had in the past.
An Act of Love follows Frank and his family, from the initial trial though his final Judicial Council hearing, as they join the struggle to change the Church from within to allow for greater acceptance of its LGBTQ members and clergy.
Now, as Frank’s story winds down, the storm within the United Methodist Church is just picking up speed. In May of 2016, the United Methodist Church held its General Conference, where the rules about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy were hotly debated. Facing threat of schism, the Church agreed to form a special commission to study these issues. The "Commission on a Way Forward" will meet until 2019, when a special General Conference may be held to discuss LGBTQ related rules.
As the third largest Christian denomination in the United States, which direction the UMC takes could have ripple effects throughout the entire Christian community, in the US and the world. Frank and his family’s story will undoubtedly have an impact on this discussion.