United Methodist pastors escape discipline over same-sex wedding in Philadelphia

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Dozens of United Methodist ministers who blessed a same-sex wedding in Philadelphia will face no discipline for breaking church law, but acknowledge they could be punished if they do it again, according to a settlement announced by the denomination.

A total of 36 Methodist clergy blessed the Nov. 9 ceremony at Philadelphia's Arch Street United Methodist Church to show support for the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a colleague who faced church discipline for presiding over his gay son's wedding. Schaefer's case will be heard by the church's highest court in late October.

Fellow Methodists lodged a complaint against the rebellious ministers in July. Last week, the church published a joint statement saying that to avoid "the cost and pain of an ecclesiastical trial," both sides agreed to meet twice, with the goal of finding a way to "live and work together moving forward, considering our differences on this issue."

The United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination with 12 million members worldwide, accepts gay members but bans "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from becoming clergy and forbid ministers from performing same-sex marriages. The issue has caused a split within the church.

The clergy taking part in last year's wedding at Arch Street jointly blessed the union of two men, intoning, "Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder."

The wedding was ceremonial because Pennsylvania's gay-marriage ban was still on the books. A federal judge overturned the ban in May.

"Though I may sympathize with the pastoral concerns" of the clergy who officiated the ceremony, "it is unacceptable to disregard and disobey the Book of Discipline," Bishop Peggy Johnson of the church's eastern Pennsylvania conference said in a statement.

She said Philadelphia-area clergy who officiate a gay marriage in the future could face "significant and appropriate consequences," including a trial.

The settlement required the rebellious clergy to acknowledge their obligation to obey the Book of Discipline, the Methodists' law book.

The ministers' statement — included on the settlement document — said they "took a stand in solidarity with our LGBT friends, family members, neighbors and church members." The statement also asserted that church policy on homosexuality is discriminatory and "continues to cause emotional and psychological harm" to gays.

Methodists who filed the complaint said they did so to maintain order within the church and hold clergy accountable.

"We do not believe that our current disciplinary language is inconsistent, or constitutes discrimination against any persons," their statement said.

The church did not release the names of the clergy who officiated the wedding ceremony, or the Methodists who lodged the complaint.

In a sign of their deep division over gay marriage, the settlement required both sides to "agree to refrain from defamatory language and characterizations of each other, acknowledging that both are acting out of conscience and in an attempt to be faithful to the call of Christ."

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