A jury of United Methodist pastors put the Rev. Frank Schaefer's fate in his own hands Tuesday, telling him to decide in 30 days if he can uphold church doctrine and to turn over his credentials if he cannot.
Schaefer, a Methodist pastor put on trial for presiding over his son's same-sex wedding, said he expected to be defrocked at the end of that period.
If asked, he said, he would officiate over another gay marriage during his 30-day suspension.
"I am no longer willing to accept the church's hate speeches, the church's treatment of some people like they are second-grade Christians. We must stop harming beloved children of God in the name of Christ," said Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon County, Pa.
The jurors, who gathered at a retreat center in Spring City, Chester County, deliberated for about 31/2 hours before announcing the verdict just after 9 p.m. On Monday, they had found Schaefer guilty of violating church law for officiating at the 2007 wedding of son Tim in Massachusetts.
Schaefer said he gave the group "every reason in the book" to defrock him immediately. On Tuesday, he took the stand and draped a rainbow stole around his neck, declaring he would continue to be an advocate for gay rights.
The announcement surprised the prosecutor, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, who said it left him with just two questions:
Are you willing to repent? Will you promise to never perform another same-sex union?
To both, Schaefer said he could not.
In response, Fisher asked the jury to "let him go and wish him well."
Schaefer's counsel, the Rev. Robert Coombe, though, encouraged the group to "find a creative way" to focus on healing rather than punishment and send a message that the United Methodist Church is not "punitive, retributive, and harsh."
After the jurors left the room, Schaefer's supporters stood, linked arms, and broke into "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?" Schaefer then gave out Communion as many in the group sobbed.
Bishop Peggy Johnson, who presides over the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said in a statement that she recognized that the issue of same-sex marriage was causing pain in the church.
"We know that United Methodists have diverse opinions on this issue and our hope is that we pray and work together toward unity and greater understanding and healing," she said.
Many witnesses Tuesday described that pain, from the schism at Schaefer's church to the individual loss felt by members who have left the congregation and the struggle facing the wider denomination.
The two sides were sharply divided over who is to blame for the hurt spilling out of Schaefer's case - the pastor or the ones who decided to charge him.
Earlier Tuesday, as the ecclesiastical court took up the matter of punishment, William Bailey, a 35-year member of Schaefer's church who has left the congregation, testified that the community was shattered when the marriage came to light in April, causing attendance to drop by a third and financial giving to plummet.
But Schaefer's counsel suggested that members there were divided over the pastor's leadership - including his focus on building a second, more progressive service following the weekly traditional one - far before they found out about the wedding. The Rev. James Todd, district superintendent, testified that most who left were supporters of Schaefer upset over how administrators handled his case.
A church trial has been a rarely used process, as complaints are typically handled through mediation. But at least three other Methodist ministers are also awaiting trials for officiating at same-sex ceremonies or being openly homosexual.
Matt Berryman, the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a coalition of churches committed to inclusiveness for people of all sexual orientations, said at least three other ministers have pending complaints against them but have not been formally charged. Berryman called it an unprecedented showing of dissent within the church.
"It means the crescendo is building - the crescendo for justice, the crescendo for inclusion," he said.
The day of doctrinal arguments was broken up by group prayers and spontaneous hymns sung between sessions. Before the jury left to deliberate, the audience reached out arms as the presiding officer, Bishop Alfred Gwinn Jr., gave a blessing. Communion was offered during the lunch break.
Under the sentence, Schaefer is suspended for 30 days and tasked with reflecting on his newfound calling to minister to the LGBT community. If he cannot promise to uphold church doctrine after the 30 days, he is to turn over his credentials.
The United Methodist Church has about 12 million members worldwide.