There is a terrific article in the Washington Post concerning the plight of Frank Schaefer, the erstwhile United Methodist pastor who was defrocked for presiding at the marriage of his gay son, Tim.
A youth leader at his church, Tim was around 13 when he went with his dad to one of the denomination’s annual regional meetings. The group was debating Methodist language around homosexuality, and the conversation was often contentious. Tim was struck by how few people supported gay equality.
It never occurred to Schaefer to bring the topic up with Tim on the way home. “I had the impression Tim was excited about the democratic process” of the meeting, he says. “I had no idea what he felt inside.”
Within a few years, in 2000, Schaefer got an anonymous call. Your 17-year-old son, the woman said, is gay and suicidal.
Schaefer and his wife didn’t hesitate. “We lost it in tears, hugging him. We told him we loved him so much and he did not choose this. We just affirmed him,” Schaefer says.
Of course they did! What else were they supposed to do? How complicated is this issue, really?
Unfortunately, things look equally clear-cut from the other side of the culture war debate. Schaefer’s decision to preside at his son’s wedding split his congregation in Iona Pennsylvania.
A trial would be held in November, with a church jury, at a church camp outside Philadelphia. Iona erupted and lost half of its membership. Some of Schaefer’s conservative friends felt betrayed.
“Since when is it not love to warn people of Judgment Day? Of God’s wrath? How is that judgment?” says Todd Zulick, an old friend of Schaefer’s who had volunteered as a youth pastor in his church.
Sounding hurt, he shared some of his writings on the topic, which he posts on Facebook.
One, titled “I Love Pastor Frank enough as a friend to tell him the Truth of Scripture,” says:
“Homosexuality is NOT the issue here; it can be any sin as revealed in the Bible. If we do not have an Absolute Standard then people can justify any sin. . . . We might as well throw the bible in the garbage, if each one decides what is and is not truth or sin.”
That last line comes up a lot in the gay equality debate: if you can’t believe every last word of the Bible, you might as well toss the book in the trash. And if you accept the authority of Scripture, the argument continues, the debate over gay equality is settled from the get-go.
The dismal culture debate played out in the comments section at the end of the article; liberals questioning why conservatives believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, and conservatives arguing that if we accept gay marriage, the moral foundations of American society will crumble to dust.
Frank Schaefer gets a lot of speaking invitations these days; in fact, he is speaking somewhere in the country most every night. His views on GLBT issues evolved gradually over a period of years. Even after he had accepted his son’s sexual identity, he was unable to bring his feelings and convictions into the pulpit. What felt to him like prophetic sermons, he now admits, were really cautious dog whistle hints designed to appease the liberal wing of his congregation without angering the conservatives.
His children remember him warning them when he was going to give what he deemed a “controversial” sermon, which was usually on a general social justice topic, peppered with vague terms such as “marginalized people.”
He feared backlash.
As things turned out, his fears were justified. The United Methodist Book of Discipline clearly bars pastors from officiating at gay weddings so, when charges were formally filed against Rev. Schaeffer, the outcome was largely predetermined. There was no way to affirm Schaeffer’s decision without rejecting the established teaching of the denomination. That teaching will eventually change; but in the meantime a growing number of pastors are out of work.
But even if the church allows him to serve again, he knows he will not go back to being the pastor he was before.
“One thing is, I’ll never be silent again,” he said this week from Oklahoma, where he was asked to speak to United Methodist pastors.
Silence is killing the American church. Most of us, pastors and lay people alike, have lapsed into an anxious silence, waiting on the sidelines until a clear consensus emerges on subjects like gay marriage.
And the silence of the American church isn’t just reserved for the gay equality debate; we are silent on any issue on which a clear consensus has yet to emerge. As a consequence, we can’t talk about moral issues of any sort: Immigration, homelessness, mass incarceration, education reform and mental health are all off the table.
That’s why Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, has created a six-lesson curriculum called Breaking the Silence. We talk about the Bible. We listen to Jesus. We hike the highlands of the kingdom of God. We trace the shape of biblical salvation. Then, and only then, do we talk about public policy.
When Frank Scaeffer speaks, “Those in the audience at his speaking engagements sometimes ask him whether he thinks liberal religion has any future or any scriptural leg to stand on.”
Schaeffer remains upbeat, largely because he has looked at life from both sides now and he understands why good people can disagree so vehemently.
“I don’t judge people struggling with this issue,” he says. “This took me many years. I just think I can help people because I’ve been through this myself. . . . We’re all struggling, aren’t we, with Scriptures and what they mean?”
Yes and no. We are all struggling with the Bible, but we generally struggle alone. In the messy middle American, where most moderate-to-liberal churches live, our conversations about the Bible are muted at best.
When we aren’t allowed to discuss controversial moral issues, we can’t talk meaningfully about the Bible. The Bible doesn’t reinforce either side of the culture war; it has its own conversation going on. A conversation that is foreign to most of us.
The morality of Jesus is pretty straightforward; it is also pretty scary if your goal in life is to be happy and antonymous. Living the Jesus way is simple, frightening and glorious. Things only get complicated when we lack the courage to follow where Jesus leads.
Maya Angelou got it right, “Without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.”
Frank Schaeffer came down on the right side of a tough issue because he found the courage to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death where he saw the heart of God shining in the frightened eyes of the boy he loved.