On February 20, 2012, a deeply-divided GAPJC affirmed the rebuke of the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr for having performed marriages for same-gender couples. In its first meeting since that decision was handed down, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, as ordered, heard the report of the decision. The presbytery’s response was to adopt the following motion:
THAT the Presbytery oppose imposition of the rebuke as set forth in the decision of the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission, dated August 27, 2010 (which was stayed by its terms until the present day), by declaring and resolving as follows:
WHEREAS, our primary ordination vow as Ruling and Teaching Elders is to be obedient to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him (F-1.02; W-4.4003a);
WHEREAS, the love of God in Jesus Christ is for all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people;
WHEREAS, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the constitution require that full inclusion and pastoral care be extended to all members of the church;
WHEREAS, this Presbytery called the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr to a ministry in outreach to – and in community among and with – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people;
WHEREAS, the 38-year ministry of the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr has been faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to her calling;
WHEREAS, the decision of August 27, 2010, by its terms, acknowledges and apologizes (1) that the rules of the church “are against the Gospel,” and (2) that the decision and rebuke continue the grievous harm “that has been, and continues to be, done” by the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people “in the name of Jesus Christ”;
Be it RESOLVED that the Presbytery of the Redwoods opposes imposition of the rebuke set forth in the decision dated August 27, 2010, as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this Presbytery.
In August 2010 the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of the Redwoods (PPJC) issued a “rebuke” to the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr for her actions in performing legal marriages for same-sex couples during the time when they were legal in California. In their ruling, the PPJC acknowledged that Janie was “acting with faithful compassion in accord with W-7.3004,” declaring:
We commend Dr. Spahr and give thanks for her prophetic ministry that for 35 years has extended support to “people who seek the dignity, freedom and respect that they have been denied” (W-7.4002c), and has sought to redress “wrongs against individuals, groups, and peoples in the church, in this nation, and in the world” (W-7.4002h).
In addition, we call upon the church to re-examine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (G3.0401c) We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel. In this particular case, in W-4.9001 we have inclusive and broad descriptive language about marriage, “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family.” This sentence is followed immediately by “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.” The language of the second statement draws on our cultural understanding today of marriage that is rooted in equality. But it is not faithful to the Biblical witness in which marriage was a case of property transfer because women were property. Nor does it specifically address same gender marriage.
Similarly, in the reality in which we live today, marriage can be between same gender as well as opposite gender persons, and we, as a church, need to be able to respond to this reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion.
The PPJC decision was appealed to the PJC of the Synod of the Pacific (SPJC), which upheld the decision but added objections of its own. The majority of a deeply divided GAPJC, ruling on the appeal of the SPJC decision, upheld the earlier decisions.
When a minister is acknowledged to be conducting faithful, prophetic, and pastoral ministry but is nevertheless censured, it is evident that the church has strayed far from the path of Jesus. The Presbytery of the Redwoods decided to act in solidarity with Janie and the couples to whom she has ministered.
The Covenant Network stands with Janie, and with every pastor seeking to provide sensitive, faithful pastoral care to same-gender couples, their families, and the congregations who embrace them. Loving same-gender couples who wish to celebrate their marriages in the church are not seeking attention or controversy but, like heterosexual couples, the support of their church family for the solemn and joyful covenant they are making.
The GAPJC majority decision lifted up as problematic “the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church.” The concern is apparently not whether the marriages have value in the eyes of God or are legal according to the civil authority, but whether they accord with a description of marriage in the Book of Order – a description written when marriage between persons of the same gender was not contemplated.
We regret that the GAPJC majority failed to take the opportunity to clarify their earlier decisions in a way that would assist pastors in their ministries to all families – and stop the lamentable waste of the church’s resources that happens when pastors are targeted for “discipline” for ministering equally to all those whom God has entrusted to their care.
Nevertheless, we continue to believe that ministers may conduct services under current church law. Since the 1990s, interpretations of the Directory for Worship have required officiants at ceremonies for same-gender couples to make clear that, whatever relationship is being formed or celebrated, it is not officially regarded as a “marriage” by the PC(USA). With a bit of care, that clarification can become a statement of solidarity rather than a legalistic disclaimer. For example, the pastor could declare at the beginning of the service that “While we lament that the Presbyterian Church does not regard this relationship as a marriage, we pledge to support and nurture this couple in their commitment just as we support all who marry.” Because states vary in their requirements, those authorized to conduct services need to focus carefully on the secular (as well as church) rules in deciding how to proceed, in order to protect the couple being married.
The dissenters among the GAPJC members recognized that creating an offense that subjects persons to discipline – by relying on a “paragraph [that] emerged decades ago, in a very different time and context,” and is not “primarily and intentionally legal in nature” – constitutes an error by the GAPJC majority:
In this case and the other recent decisions, my principal concern is that this Commission has forged a standard upon an extremely fragile provision, employing a strained interpretation that does not provide the necessary legal foundation for resolution of our dilemma or foster pastoral guidance in the life of the church. By relying so heavily on W-4.9001, the Commission has ruled upon convention rather than law. The definitive clarity that the church deserves and expects in this continuing and vexatious dispute awaits deeper foundational judgment as well as more precise legislation.
The Covenant Network agrees, and joins the Presbytery of the Redwoods, the PPJC, the SPJC, the GAPJC minority, and even some among the GAPJC majority, in the conviction that the current situation is untenable.
We believe it imperative for the health of the church that the 220th General Assembly (2012) correct this error by issuing an Authoritative Interpretation to clarify that the Book of Order does not prohibit ministers from conducting marriage services authorized by the civil authority.
The latest judicial decision makes it clear that the current Constitution can be interpreted in very different ways, and that authoritative interpretation of its provisions is a proper means of addressing these pressing issues. We appreciate our lawyers, but their services should not be necessary for pastors who are seeking to honor their promises “to pray for and serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” (W-4.4003h)