Another church trial over a same-sex wedding could be on the horizon locally for the United Methodist Church - this time with 36 defendants and reverberations in congregations across the region.
Accused of breaking doctrinal law are the pastors who jointly performed a same-sex wedding last year in Philadelphia in solidarity with the Rev. Frank Schaefer, the Lebanon, Pa., pastor put on trial for presiding at his gay son's wedding.
A complaint against those 36 ministers was filed by a group of about 50 members, mostly clergy, of the church's eastern Pennsylvania Conference, according to those with knowledge of the confidential process. Their move forces the hand of Bishop Peggy Johnson - who could have taken action against the 36 herself - as Methodist bishops across the country become embroiled in the growing divide over gay rights.
"If Bishop Johnson had done things earlier, like had a strong statement of rebuke . . . there are a number of people that signed onto this complaint that would not have," said John Lomperis, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank that recently released details of the complaint.
At the November ceremony at Arch Street United Methodist Church, many pastors said their convictions against the ban on openly homosexual clergy and the blessing of same-sex weddings outweighed the risk of losing their jobs. As the two grooms stood at the altar, the group formed a chain of outreached arms and jointly blessed the union.
The Rev. Herb Snyder, a former pastor of Arch Street, who was one of the pastors present, said Wednesday that he was not surprised that a complaint was filed.
"I just wish that all of our church would agree that trials do not solve anything," said Snyder, who was ordained 53 years ago. "And, naturally, I'm feeling very sad that, you know, my brothers and sisters, clergy brothers and sisters, would do something like this."
According to the organizers, the pastors were drawn from more than two dozen eastern Pennsylvania congregations.
Lomperis said it was irrelevant that gay marriage did not become legal in Pennsylvania until after the ceremony, because the church's laws ban conducting "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions."
Several of the accused pastors declined to comment. Lomperis, who has been in contact with some of the complainants, said they also were not speaking publicly.
Under the church's disciplinary rules, a complaint triggers negotiations to find a resolution both sides can agree on. If that fails, the bishop can dismiss the complaint if he or she has good reason, or refer it to the church's counsel, initiating a trial.
Johnson is on leave and was unavailable to comment, but said in a statement that she was prayerful that a resolution could be reached.
Some bishops have placed moratoriums on trials in their own regions, opening the door for pastors to officiate at gay weddings without fear of reprisal. That has lead conservative groups to float talk of a schism, saying the church should split if some can't follow its laws.
Johnson has said that she personally believes the church's rules are discriminatory and that she would try to avoid more trials, but she has not become an advocate for change within the denomination.
Schaefer this week urged her to take that step, even if it meant she could face discipline.
"That hits close to home with me because I was in that situation, and I had to walk the walk," said Schaefer, who became outspoken after he was charged. "My conscience didn't allow me to just talk the talk and turn my back."
In the months after the 36 pastors performed the wedding in Philadelphia, Schaefer was put on trial for blessing his son's union, found guilty, defrocked, and reinstated when an appeals panel found his punishment was unjust. His case could be appealed to a higher church panel.
Despite the uncertainty, Schaefer has taken a job offer to minister in a conference in Southern California.
He is moving Friday from Lebanon, as the local conference still grapples with the aftershocks of his case.