At the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict. It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience. Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation. I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”
One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox. It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox. Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid. I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy. In this case it is also tragic.
I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed. It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile. He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.
Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion. I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories. He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.” He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks. This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate. It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology. The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.
Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline. The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages. What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules? Of course they are. So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue. Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture. The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old. It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.
The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers. The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education. The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative. The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak. The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.
Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this. It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course. If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health. Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church. On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s. The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA. On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years. Do you see where this is headed?
Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone. I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady. No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about. The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it. The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.” Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.
Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research. He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts. By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work? And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?
Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner. He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time. Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function. He was not making a political statement at that wedding. He has not presided at any other gay weddings. The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert. He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private. He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.
When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.” That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear. Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank. So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?
A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod. Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’ Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.” He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.” Again, this is why people don’t go to church.
Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox. In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside. Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer. When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators. Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation. It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other. It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful. It gave me chills. As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between. It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience. For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can. This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it. It is a human dynamic, sadly. So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse. I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.