by Juan M.C. Oliver
Until his retirement to Santa Fe in 2008, Dr. Juan Oliver was the director of the Hispanic/Latino Program and adjunct professor of Liturgics at The General Seminary in New York City.
He holds the M.Div., from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the M.F.A. in painting and drawing from the University of New Mexico. He earned the Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley with his dissertation, “The Look of Common Prayer: The Anglican Liturgical Place in Anglo-American Culture,” which explored how a local vision of the Reign of God might be the main theological criterion for evaluating worship spaces.
Dr. Oliver has published widely on worship, Hispanic ministry, and the full welcome of gay and lesbian persons in the Episcopal Church. His most recent project on Hispanic ministry, “Ripe Fields: The Promise and Challenge of Hispanic Ministry” (New York: Church Publishing) was published in 2009. He is a member of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001. At St. Bede´s, Santa Fe, he has since 2009, developed a growing Spanish speaking congregation which celebrates the Eucharist as a full meal open to all.
Today’s scheduled ecclesiastical trial of Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer is an ecclesiastical travesty. He has been brought up on the charge of breaking his pastoral vows from when he officiated the same-sex marriage of his son in 2007 in Massachusetts, where it is legal. It is not, however, legal in the Methodist Church, which considers homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching, though it also insists on ministering to all persons regardless of sexual orientation. That’s nice but inconsistent, if not self-contradictory.
You cannot baptize persons into membership in a church and then deny them a pastoral rite, claiming that it is designed only for heterosexuals. There are not two types of membership in the Church of Jesus Christ, straight membership and gay membership. Only one: Christian—a person incorporated into the Body of Christ through water and the Spirit, and fed at Christ’s Table.
Perhaps the UMC will decide to be consistent and deny LGBT persons membership in the Church. But I think not. The UMC wants to have it both ways, being “inclusive” while continuing to target gays as second class members. Why would it do that? Because it does not dare take a stand that might offend some people. Because LGB T persons are expendable as members, because it wants to eat its cake and have it too.
Schaefer’s son, Tim, has characterized the wedding as the work of a loving father, which it obviously is, but it is much more. It is not simply about his love for his son. If it were just that, he could promise to never do this again and walk on. But he will not make that promise. He is calling out the injustice inherent in denying LGBT persons the right to marry. I would posit that Rev. Schaefer is being put on trial for being a good Christian, not only a loving father.
Fighting injustice is a core commitment of Christians. We don’t get to feel all goose-bumpy about God without feeling equally moved to fight suffering and oppression. Without the latter, the former is just a lot of hot air, a spiritual excuse to ignore the real, concrete world staring us in the face. This might come as a surprise to Christians fed on the garbage of “being spiritual but not political,” —as if Jesus had been arrested, tortured and executed for being a kind soul.
Churches have excelled at this for centuries, preaching a spiritual gospel that leaves aside real human injustice. And that is precisely why the Christian churches are losing credibility at an alarming pace. Without walking our talk, there is simply not much we can do to attract more members.
So, good for The Rev. Schaefer for walking his talk. He probably did not set out to be a martyr, (the word means witness) but that is precisely what the Methodist Church will make of him if it defrocks him for witnessing to what Christianity is all about in the first place.
The Christian Church in all its denominations in this country has been grappling with this issue for over forty five years. Why is the United Methodist Church so far behind its Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal brothers and sisters? I do not know the answer, but I know that with this action it further runs the risk of being perceived as obstinate and out of step with the times, or worse, speaking with forked tongue; and forked tongues do not attract new members.
If you would like to be involved in one of the prayer vigils being organized for Frank Schaefer or are interested in ways to support him, Reconciling Ministries Network has set up a resources page on their website.
You can find more information on the UMC trial of Frank Schaefer and the church’s rift on same sex marriage at the Reconciling Ministries Network blog, including an open letter from UMC historian Thomas Frank to the Council of Bishops asking for a stop to the trials, published letters and tweets opposing the trials, and personal stories from clergy defying UMC edicts and performing same gender marriage ceremonies.