Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Devil Enters the Church Through the Choir

Pastor Schaefer and son, Tim. And just what
would Jesus do?
The Reverend Frank Schaefer was suspended this past Tuesday from his duties as a Methodist minister for thirty days for performing the same-sex marriage of his son, Tim, in 2007. 
Pastor Schaefer was not always an advocate of same-sex marriage.  Schaefer was born and raised in Germany and came to the United States about twenty-five years ago.  He studied for the ministry here in the United States and originally was far more conservative in his views, particularly on homosexuality, than he is today.  Part of that change was learning that his son Tim, then 17, was gay and was contemplating suicide because of his sexual orientation.  Tim’s experience made his father re-think his ideas about same-sex love.  When Tim asked his father to preside at his 2007 wedding, Schaefer agreed—not, he said, to flaunt Methodist discipline but out of love for his son.
I am not disagreeing with the action of the local jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church—certainly any Catholic priest who performed a same-sex wedding would be held to an even stricter punishment and I think justly so.  When we deal with matters of faith, it is not a matter of I think or I believe, but what is the faith we hold in common. Faith—at least in our Christian Tradition—is not a personal opinion but a personal commitment to common belief.  Moreover, not being a Methodist I am not going to give an opinion on Methodist Church polity on this matter.  But what I find sad is that the real issue is not the gay wedding.  Pastor Schaefer is in hot water because he has tried to shake his parish out of their very un-Methodist complacency.  Like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, Pastor Schaefer has been burning with zeal to bring the Gospel into the lives of those who have been pushed to the margins of the established Church or who have found the staid churchiness of the establishment to be too pallid for their spiritual hungers and are waiting for a preacher who can make the Word of God to be something alive and vibrant.  Pastor Schaefer has tried to evangelize—to bring the Gospel—and some of his congregation prefer religion to Gospel.  That is to say they want that old time religion in which they grew up rather than a living faith in a Lord who came to shake things up in his world—and in ours.  That happens in Catholic churches too—a lot. Pastor Schaefer added a contemporary worship service to the Church schedule and this angered a traditionalist faction within the congregation. Especially angered was the choir director, Deb Boger. The popularity of the 11:00 am contemporary service pushed her out of the spotlight.  Anyone who thinks that the focus of worship is “All Glory to God” has never dealt with a Church musician, especially a home-grown volunteer for whom being an organist or soloist or—height of heights—director is the opportunity to be someone important, a big fish in a really small pond.  Like the saying goes, “the devil enters the Church through the choir.”  And somebody in that choir held the door wide open for him.    
Pastor Schaefer never challenged the United Methodist Church on its position about same-sex marriage from the pulpit, but he did try to make the Church a more welcoming place for all and frequently spoke of “inclusiveness” in the Church.  Given that three of his four children are gay, Church members could read between the lines and some did not like the implications.  Like the people who challenged the Apostles that “your master welcomes sinners and eats with them” they weren’t quite in agreement with “healthy people do not need the physician, the sick do…for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The righteous always feel a little left out when Jesus sits down—or they should if they knew their New Testament.  Not everyone at Zion Methodist wanted a pastor who was going to welcome sinners into their Church. Pastor Schaefer was shaking things up just a bit too much for them.  He had said in one of his sermons: 

The truth is that God, while being our comfort, always seems to push us to grow more, to do better, and to change the world. Neither of these things can be achieved by sitting on our butt in the comfort of the spiritual lazy-boy chair.  

That message is more than some people want to hear. 
Deb Boger found herself more and more at odds with the Pastor.  She was not the only one, of course, but this was her church and her choir and she didn’t like where things were going.  Pastor Schaefer found that he could not work with a choir director who was leading an incipient rebellion.  He was the Pastor and as such the person responsible for preaching the Gospel.  To be fair, no Pastor can afford to be undermined by a member of his staff.  You ultimately have to work together or you have to part and go separate ways.  It is not usually the pastor who goes. 
Now the real failure was the Bishop.  Methodists—like Catholics—are an episcopal Church.  That is to say, they are governed by bishops.  And in the Methodist Church, like the Catholic Church, the Bishop has the power to remove a pastor from a congregation for cause.  In this case, however, the Bishop told Pastor Schaefer and the choir director to “work things out.”  That was like seeing a trash-can on fire and just closing the door and walking away, hoping that the Church wouldn’t burn down.    
Faced with no other way “to rid (themselves) of this meddlesome priest” the Boger faction played the wedding-card. Deb Boger’s son, Jon, travelled up to Massachusetts and obtained a copy of the marriage license that showed that six years ago Pastor Schaefer had presided over the marriage ceremony of his son, Tim, to another man.  Now the wedding wasn’t at Zion Methodist.  It wasn’t in Pennsylvania.  It wasn’t in a church.  It didn’t happen last week.  It didn’t happen last month.  It didn’t happen last year.  The wedding was a small family affair.  Pastor Schaefer didn’t flaunt this in his congregation’s face.  He performed a wedding for his son—he didn’t lead a rebellion against the Church. He has not made Zion Methodist a wedding chapel for same-sex couples.  He hasn’t made a career out of same-sex marriages. He disobeyed but it can’t be said he defied.  Should he have done it?  I don’t know.  I can’t say.  I don’t have a gay child.  Was it disobedience?  Yes.  Should it have led to jeopardizing his ministry?  Should it have led to driving a wedge in a congregation?  I don’t know.  I have no idea how Jesus would handle this.  He never said a single thing about same-sex marriage—or even about same-sex love.  I would think from my reading of the Gospel he would be disheartened by the anger and the spiritual violence that has pitted congregant against congregant, both invoking his name and his authority to justify their position.  But who am I to judge?  I am sure of this, though, from reading Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: You don't tear the Body of Christ apart.  The Church--the Church of Christ--has to deal with its discipline issues but it does so in a way that reconciles and not divides.  Paul would be disgusted with the sort of spectacle that this situation was turned into and I don't think Jesus is too happy either.  At the end of the day we have to be able to break the one bread of his body and drink the one cup of his blood together as brothers and sisters and that is a lesson somebody at Zion seems to have forgotten.  "I would rather be right that president" is fine, but "I would rather be right than Christian" leaves you neither right nor Christian.  Shame on those who brought this disgrace on the Church! 
As I said in the beginning of this post, I am sure that a Catholic priest who presided over a same-sex marriage would be disciplined even more severely, and given our theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony—which is considerably more complex than the understanding of marriage in most Protestant traditions—I think such punishment would be justified.  At the same time, the strategy of undermining a priest or deacon by bringing frivolous accusations against him is not unknown in Catholic circles.  Some years back an organization calling itself “Roman Catholic Faithful” led by a southern Illinois lawyer, Stephen Brady, advertised seeking personal information on various Catholic bishops that could be used to discredit them and leave no choice but that they be removed from office.  Mr. Brady ultimately lapsed into the anti-Vatican II schism and closed down his operation. But there are others in the Church who travel from parish to parish, recording what they see to be illicit practices or heretical homilies and forwarding their observations to the Holy See.  A pastor refuses to include an Extraordinary Form Mass (the pre-conciliar Tridentine Rite) in the parish schedule, and they write to Rome.  A church renovation takes out the sanctuary railing and they demonstrate.  A gay man is permitted to give the eulogy at his partner’s funeral, and they want the bishop to remove the priest.  A Protestant congregation is permitted to use the parish hall while their church is being renovated, and they call the nunciature.  It is this same mean-spirited Phariseeism that went after Pastor Schaefer—not for doing the wedding of his gay son but for offering a vision of a Church where all are welcome to the Table where the Lord sits with sinners.  And you know—I don’t think Jesus had a choir director at that supper.  Maybe for a reason.       

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