Three years after conducting a wedding ceremony for a lesbian couple, the Rev. Janet Edwards was acquitted Thursday on charges of violating Scripture and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s constitution.
The Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Pittsburgh Presbytery ruled unanimously 9-0 to clear the minister on the grounds that she could not have performed the ceremony since the church and state define marriage as between a man and a woman.
"It can't be an offense to the constitution to attempt to do the impossible," stated the decision, read by the Rev. Stewart Pollock, chairman of the regional church court, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and who has been critical of the PC(USA)'s liberal direction, said the decision represents "one of the most absurd decisions ever rendered by an ecclesiastical court."
"This decision is the equivalent of saying that it can’t be an offense to the PC(USA) Constitution, or to Scripture, to attempt to marry a man to a woman other than his current wife, or to his mother, or to a prepubescent child, or even to a horse, because the Church does not recognize as a valid marriage cases of bigamy, polygamy, adultery, incest, pedophilia, or bestiality," Gagnon stated.
Some argue that the court did not offer a satisfying decision, especially as the PC(USA) continues debates over homosexuality, and that it was more of a "non-decision."
Edwards and the couple she wed in 2005 – Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn – were pleased but the minister also acknowledged that the decision "does not settle disagreement among my colleagues."
But the Rev. James C. Yearsley, who was among several Presbyterian ministers that filed a second complaint against Edwards after the first was dismissed in November 2006 on a technicality, said he wasn't surprised by the court decision.
"This is the direction of our denomination, and it is accelerating. But it's the wrong decision for the wrong reasons. It's a further attempt to accommodate culture at the expense of scriptural authority and belief," he commented, as reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Also, before the ruling, Yearsley, who said he would not push for an appeal, stated that an acquittal would signal collapse of church discipline.
During the Oct. 1-2 trial, biblical scholars and theologians on the defense testified that Edwards' acceptance of same-sex "marriage" was within the Presbyterian tradition of interpreting Scripture in its cultural context, according to the local Post-Gazette.
A 2000 decision by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the denomination's highest court, held that clergy could conduct services blessing same-sex couples but could not present them as marriages and that the services should not resemble weddings.
Although the charges against Edwards contended she "knowingly and willfully" performed a ceremony that was "contrary" to the PC(USA) constitution, Pollock of the regional PJC said the prosecution offered no evidence that Edwards violated Scripture when it listed eight biblical passages defied.
Presbyterians have debated the issue of homosexuality for decades. In June, the highest governing body of the PC(USA), the General Assembly, approved a proposal that allows lesbian and gay ministers to be ordained – which still has to be approved by a majority of local presbyteries – while choosing to keep its current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
To many in the denomination, including Gagnon of Pittsburgh Seminary, homosexual behavior is a sin.
Gagnon believes the latest church court decision "constitutes nothing less than an illegal nullification of the Constitution and Scripture."
"Such unreasonable decisions threaten to do irreparable damage to the credibility of the PC(USA)," he said.
The ruling on Edwards follows a similar decision made by the denomination's highest court earlier this year when the Rev. Jane Spahr, a lesbian, was found not guilty of violating denominational law when she officiated at the weddings of two lesbian couples. The high court ruled that the ceremonies Spahr performed in 2005 and 2004 were not marriages.