Any other day, Reverend Frank Schaeffer might look out onto the 179 acres of woods at Camp Innabah—a Christian retreat center 40 miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—and stop to ponder God's design in the natural beauty. But today, his mind is on another matter: his trial.
"There probably won't be an acquittal," says Schaeffer, who faces losing his credentials to preach in the United Methodist Church, the country's largest mainline protestant denomination. "I just hope the penalty will be restorative rather than punitive."
The 51-year-old pastor's crime? Officiating his son's same-sex wedding in 2007. Schaeffer informed the church leadership that he would be performing the ceremony at the time, but disciplinary proceedings were not started against him until last April, when a member of his congregation reported him. Under the church's Book of Discipline, "homosexual practice" is considered "incompatible with Christian teaching." "I knew if I spoke out, it would be very divisive," Schaeffer says. "But I feel like I was outed to the world and couldn't go back."
Schaeffer's trial, which over the weekend prompted 30 other Methodist ministers in Pennsylvania to express solidarity by sanctifying a same-sex union, has highlighted the growing divide among the faithful over homosexuality. It's a rift that extends across denominations. Except for the the United Church of Christ, which began recognizing same-sex unions in 2005; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which followed suit in 2009; and the Episcopal Church,* the leadership of the country's major Christian denominations has presented a solid front against the spread of same-sex marriage across the country. Further down the totem pole, churches are moving on without their leadership. According to a forthcoming report from the National Congregations Study at Duke University, the number of congregations allowing openly gay and lesbian members has increased from 38 to 48 percent since 2006. Twenty-seven percent of churches gave gay and lesbian congregants leadership roles in the same timeframe—an 8 percent jump.
"Things don't change that much in religion—there's a lot of stability," says Mark Chaves, a sociologist at Duke and one of the researchers behind the study. "This is one of the biggest jumps on a specific subject we've seen since we first started collecting data in 1998." Indeed, while public support for same-sex marriage shot up in the last ten years—in 2003, only 33 percent of the public supported gay unions; today, 55 percent do—polls have generally shown attitudes among religious folk trending upward more languorously. But those who study religious opinion say the trend line among the faithful began to shoot up between 2008 and 2009. "The sea change has hit among religious organizations," says Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a think tank in Washington, D.C. "Overall, what we're seeing are the changes in American culture broadly reflected in attitudes of religious Americans as well." The rise is driven by young people, who tend to favor same-sex marriage, and the increasing number of Americans—both religious and not—who personally know someone who is gay, which studies show is the best predictor of attitudes on gay unions.
While the numbers from the National Congregations Study offer a bottom-up view of how things are changing in the pews, data from the PRRI offers more of a drill-down into the shift within different denominations. The change in attitude among the faithful is not evenly distributed across denominations. While a majority of Catholics and mainline Protestants now support same-sex marriage, only 19 percent of white evangelicals and 37 percent of minority Protestants do. But, reflecting the findings of the National Congregations Study, in each group there has been an upturn. Since 2006, support for same-sex marriage increased 17 percentage points among Catholics, 14 among mainline Protestants, 6 among white evangelicals, and 10 among minority Protestants.
Like many religious institutions, the divide in the Methodist Church falls along geographic lines. While mainline Protestants tend to be supporting of gay rights, the Methodist Church is more heavily concentrated in the South than the Lutheran or Episcopal churches. "Methodists in the South are highly influenced by evangelicalism, which is why you see these battles being more pitched in the United Methodist Church," Jones says. For groups like the Episcopal Church, the split is international. After the church ordained openly gay pastor Gene Robinson as a bishop in 2007, more than a dozen jurisdictions peeled off to form the Anglican Church in North America, which was quickly followed by the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Uganda.
The largest upswing in support for same-sex marriage has been among black protestants, which jumped from just 19 percent in 2006 to 43 percent today—a 24-point spread. Jones credits religious and non-religious leaders in the black community for the shift. "One of the things that certainly has played a role is the election of Obama and his own public shift in his stance on the issue, followed very quickly by the NAACP's shift," Jones says. Opposition to same-sex marriage in the black church has been a major source of contention in the public sphere, with groups like the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions, trying to pit the LGBT and black communities against each other. If the polling is any indication, the strategy hasn't worked.
At least one religious group has remained steadfast in its position on same-sex marriage. Non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans, of which Jews make up a large percentage, support gay unions at a rate of over 70 percent, and have for the last decade.
With the rift in the pews growing, the big question for religious institutions is whether the issue will lead to denominational splits as it did with slavery, which cleaved the Baptist Church and many other protestant denominations in two. A similar breakup occurred in the early 20th century over the doctrinal issue of Biblical inerrancy—the idea that the Bible contains the perfectly preserved word of God. Jones says that whether churches see similar schisms over same-sex marriage depends on how persistent the divide is. Given how quickly attitudes are changing, he thinks such a largescale schism is unlikely. "When you have big splits, the issue has to sit around for a while," he says. "But the issue is moving too quickly to produce settled coalitions that are facing off."
The Methodists don't appear poised for a similar schism—at least not yet. But as the number of Methodists who support gay rights creeps upward, it is bound to create friction. For Schaeffer, whose trial is scheduled to conclude tomorrow, the issue is not an abstract one. "Really, this isn't an issue of theology or doctrine," Shaeffer says. "This is about people. It's about the life of my child."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the only mainline Protestant denomination performing same-sex marriages was the Episcopal Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also voted to recognize same-sex unions in 2009.