A rural retreat center in Eastern Pennsylvania was transformed into an internationally watched trial Monday morning as the United Methodist Church began its case against a pastor who violated church rules by performing the marriage of his son to another man.
About 100 people waited in line before 9 a.m. outside the gymnasium at Camp Innabah for seats to the trial of Frank Schaefer, whose church in nearby Lebanon, Pa., has been sharply divided by the marriage and questions of sexuality and the role of a pastor.
Among them were dozens who came from other cities to support Schaefer and his family, which includes three gay children out of four offspring. Minsters wore rainbow stoles, elderly women carried signs saying “Jesus loves me too!” and protesters sang “I once was lost” as the pool of clergy-jurors marched into the building for selection. Also in the crowd were members of Schaefer’s Zion United Methodist Church from opposing sides.
Congregants said the complaint filed this spring against Schaefer about the wedding came after years of tension between older, more traditional members and the growing group of newcomers and younger Methodists who attended the contemporary service Schaefer created. People who once sat together in the Lebanon church pews stood at arm’s length in the morning chill as they waited for tickets to get in.
Also in the crowd were several United Methodist ministers from other cities who are also facing complaints in the Methodist judicial system. Since 1998, at least three clergy have been tried for sexuality-related issues – the bulk of cases in the Methodist trial system in recent years have related to this topic – and at least four are now potentially facing trials like Schaefer’s.
Among them was the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, a Methodist minister from White Plains, N.Y., who is facing a complaint for being “a self-avowed, practicing homosexual” — the language of the charge. Tweedy is married to a woman and they have two sons.
“It is humiliating that my entire relationship has been reduced to a sexual act. Marriage is based not just on sex but on faith and love and support,” she said. If her complaint goes to trial and is like the trial of another lesbian in 2011, she will be asked details about her sex life in court. “Why do I stay? I love the United Methodist Church. My mother and my uncle were ministers in the church. People have to stay to change what’s unjust.”
When the trial began around 9 a.m., some 90 Methodist clergy filed in to begin jury selection. Thirteen would be picked during the jury selection process.