The Presbytery of the Redwoods supports Janie Spahr

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)

Comments

  1. Michael Garrett says

    So you sanction a governing body thumbing its nose at the highest judicial court in the denomination? This only further accelerates the lack of trust that is destroying what is left of PCUSA. Our polity is effectively “I will obey when it suits me.”

  2. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says

    Please clarify your statement “the Presbytery of the Redwoods, as ordered, heard the report of the decision.” All other reports of the meeting indicate the rebuke was not read as required; and the motion adopted by the Presbytery “opposes imposition of the rebuke”. How would a motion to oppose the imposition be of any effect, if the Presbytery had heard the rebuke read to those gathered?

  3. Thomas L. Fultz says

    Which account is accurate as to whether the ruling of the highest judicial level within the PCUSA was read to the Presbytery?

    Your account says: “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:”

    The other:
    “Presbytery refuses to issue rebuke ordered by church court”
    Written by Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter
    Wednesday, 16 May 2012 21:32

    “The Presbytery of the Redwoods has refused to follow the instructions of a Presbyterian church court that it rebuke Janie Spahr, a California minister, for performing same-gender weddings.
    Redwoods Presbytery voted 74-18 on May 15 not to rebuke Spahr despite the church court’s directive. Some characterized the vote as a sign of loving support for her and for gay and lesbian couples, and others as disobedience that could undermine the church’s system of connectional ties and mutual accountability.
    In February, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – ruled against Spahr, finding that she had violated the denomination’s constitution by performing 16 same-gender weddings in 2008, during a period when such marriages were legal in California.
    The court ruled that Presbyterian ministers cannot perform same-gender weddings even in states that permit such marriages, because the denomination’s constitution defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman.
    “The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony,” the court’s Feb. 20 ruling states. “It is 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.”
    In ruling against Spahr, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission upheld an August 2010 ruling from the Permanent Judicial Commission of Redwoods Presbytery. That earlier court ruling included an instruction that the presbytery rebuke Spahr for her actions – an instruction whose imposition has been stayed, or delayed, while the case was being appealed.
    One of Spahr’s lawyers, Scott Clark, made the motion that the presbytery not rebuke her. The motion stated that such a rebuke would be “inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this presbytery.”
    Others see the presbytery’s action as overt defiance of a church court order.”

  4. From the GAPJC decision: “IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwoods report this decision to the Presbytery of the Redwoods at its first meeting after receipt, that the Presbytery of the Redwoods enter the full decision upon its minutes, and that an excerpt from those minutes showing entry of the decision be sent to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.” It is our understanding that indeed, “the Presbytery of the Redwoods, as ordered, heard the report of the decision.” There is no inconsistency between our article and what was reported in the Outlook.

  5. Thomas L. Fultz says

    I appreciate your sharing the understanding of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians that the Presbytery of the Redwoods heard the GAPJC decision to affirm the rebuke; I have read the Presbyterian News Service report which states the GAPJC instructions were for the rebuke to be read by the Redwoods’ stated clerk to the presbytery meeting and the reading of the decision was scheduled to take place as part of the stated clerk’s report to Presbytery, but that instead the Presbytery heard and adopted the motion to oppose the rebuke.

    I trust the minutes of the Presbytery will clarify the actual events and fully record the Presbytery’s renunciation of the GAPJC decision. The confusion over the manner of the Presbytery’s action to oppose the decision of the highest judicial component of our denomination only compounds the amount of fracture to our fragile polity that the Presbytery of the Redwoods has generated.

    Opposition to the decision of the three levels of judicial action amounts to rejection of the connectional form of governance adopted by the PCUSA. The Presbytery’s action erred by the elevation of one of the questions for ordination to ordered office above the others. This is not in accord with the Constitution which requires affirmation of all of the questions, making them each equal and necessary – none can be primary as the Redwoods’ opposing action affirms. Employing such a “pick and choose” approach undermines PCUSA polity to a degree that there is little peace, unity, nor purity remaining. It seems to be the time for those in a presbytery that wants the denomination to be other than what we are, to take the step of peaceable withdrawal rather than further disrupt the PCUSA and oppose the actions of the our system of discipline.

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